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Special “Goo” Makes Naked Mole Rats Cancer-Proof

Update Date: Jun 19, 2013 01:20 PM EDT

A simple chemical makes naked mole rats cancer-proof, a new study suggests. Scientists found that the same molecules that give these rodents springy, wrinkly skin also seem to prevent these underground rodents from getting cancer.

Researchers said the study, published in the journal Nature, could eventually lead to new cancer treatments in humans.

Naked mole rats are small, hairless subterranean rodents that live in underground burrows throughout Southern and Eastern African and in the Middle East.  Besides being cancer-proof and having a 30-year lifespan, the naked mole rat doesn't experience pain and is also the only cold-blooded mammal known to man.

Lead researchers Andrei Seluanov and Vera Gorbunova from the University of Rochester recently discovered that naked mole rates are protected from cancer because their tissues are rich with high molecular weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA), which acts as lubricant in the body.

Scientists turned their focus on HMW-HA after they noticed that a gooey substance in the naked mole rate culture was clogging the vacuum pumps and tubing.  Researchers also found that unlike the naked mole rat culture, other media containing cells from humans, mice, and guinea pigs were not viscous.

"We needed to understand what the goo was," Seluanov said in a news release.

After they identified the "goo" as HMW-HA they were able to test its possible role in naked mole rat's cancer resistance.

Scientists found that the cells of naked mole rates became susceptible to tumors when HMW-HA was removed.  Researchers said this finding confirms that the chemical did play a role in making naked mole rats cancer-proof.

Seluanov and Gorbunova also identified the gene called HAS2, which is responsible for making HMW-HA in the naked mole rat. They found that the naked mole rat gene was different from HAS2 in all other animals. What's more, the naked mole rats were very slow at recycling HMW-HA, which contributed to the accumulation of the chemical in the animals' tissues.

Researchers said the next step is to test the effectiveness of HMW-HA in mice. Researchers said that if the trial on mice goes well, they plan on testing the chemical on human cells.

"There's indirect evidence that HMW-HA would work in people," said Seluanov. "It's used in anti-wrinkle injections and to relieve pain from arthritis in knee joints, without any adverse effects. Our hope is that it can also induce an anti-cancer response."

"A lot of cancer research focuses on animals that are prone to cancer," added Gorbunova. "We think it's possible to learn strategies for preventing tumors by studying animals that are cancer-proof."

Past research by Seluanov and Gorbunova revealed that the p16 gene in naked mole rats stopped the proliferation of cells when too many of them crowd together. In the latest study, researchers identified HMW-HA as the chemical that activates the anti-cancer response of the p16 gene.

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