Naked Mole Rats' Cancer Immunity: New Research May Improve Human Cancer Treatment

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 19, 2013 5:00 PM EDT

mole rat
A new study published in Nature says that the key to naked mole rats' cancer immunity is due to hyaluronan, a substance found between their body tissue. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers have pinpointed a substance found between the body tissues of naked mole rats that may help in human cancer treatments.

Naked mole rats are known to most people for their grotesque hairless bodies and buckteeth, but what is most notable about them is that they are the only known animal in the world that is completely immune to cancer.

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The new study, published today in Nature, found that the anticancer substance found in naked mole rats is hyaluronan, a substance that controls the growth of certain cells and keeps tissues flexible.

"Naked mole rats need good elasticity in their skin, because they don't have any fur," said Vera Gorbunova, a biology professor at the University of Rochester in New York and the study's lead author. "When they move through their tunnels, it's important that they do not rupture their skin."

That may be why the naked mole rats have developed so much hyaluronan, which also may have had the effect of making the animals cancer-free.

In the study, researchers removed hyaluronan from naked mole rats. When they did so, they observed that naked mole rat cells became susceptible to tumors.

"This is unique to this species, so it's pretty amazing," said Andrei Seluanov, a co-author of the study. "We were able to focus on the anti-cancer mechanism in naked mole rats."

Scientists not involved in the study were equally impressed with what they found.

"What excites me is that this is just one component of a whole mosaic of strange characteristics that these animals have produced due to extreme adaptations to living underground," said one such researcher, Chris Faulkes, a molecular ecology researcher at the Queen Mary University of London.

Even though the study has identified hyaluronan as the key anticancer agent, it's not clear exactly why it fights cancer, says Rochelle Buffenstein, a gerontologist -- one who studies aging -- at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. Buffenstein, who wasn't part of the study, maintains 2,500 naked mole rats. She says that even though no one is sure exactly why hyaluronan fights cancer, she thinks the study will be useful in further anticancer research in humans.

Seluanov and his team will next be testing hyaluronan in mice, and then, perhaps one day, humans.

"We are very optimistic that the anticancer mechanism we found in the naked mole rat can be translated to humans," said Gorbunova.

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