The naked mole rat is a strange creature. Hairless, cold-blooded, and totally blind, mole rats live in the deserts of East Africa in colonies similar to those of ants. They have long puzzled biologists. Mole rats do not feel much pain and are very long lived. On average, they live 20 years as opposed to rats, who live only four. Perhaps most extraordinary, though, is the mole rat’s total resistance to cancer and many other diseases.
In 2011, a study was conducted by a team at the University of Rochester to determine how the mole rats escape the disease that kills so many people every year. The results of their research were published just a few days ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
In most animals, cancerous tumors develop when mutated cells start multiplying out of control, creating masses of mutant, useless cells. In mole rats, though, the body’s cells are actually capable of detecting when these growths occur. If there are ever too many cells in one place, the mole rat’s cells begin to produce a special protein called IFN-β that causes “massive necrotic cell death within three days.” After the cells have returned to normal levels, the protein stops being produced and the body returns to normal.
Despite learning the biological process that prevents the mole rats from developing cancerous tumors, the researchers were unable to find out how the cells detected the tumors.
To try and understand the many mysteries of mole rat biology, scientists at the UK’s Genome Analysis Center have been in the process of sequencing the mole rat’s generic code since 2011.
Scientists hope to be able to use what they learn to create new cancer therapies as well as potentially learn how aging in humans might be slowed.