Question: What happens when a hairless, bucktoothed rat secretes goo that clogs a vacuum in a research lab at the University of Rochester, New York?
Answer: Two scientists accidentally stumble upon a chemical that may prevent cancer in humans.
According to the journal Nature, a lab tech mentioned those excretions to the researchers who were investigating why mole rats are so resistant to cancer; the hideous-looking creatures live an average 30 years cancer-free.
When one of the study’s authors, Andrei Seluanov, learned about the goo, he told the tech that they should examine it because it could be related to the rats’ resistance.
They did, and discovered that it was a high molecular substance called hyaluronan which, when removed from the mole rats’ cells, made the rats more susceptible to tumors.
Upon further examination they also discovered that the gene responsible for producing the chemical is different than the ones found in any other animal.
While hyaluronan itself is found in other mammals including humans, study author Vera Gorbunova says that the molecules in hyaluronan in mole rats are significantly longer. Their length creates an environment that prevents the rats’ cells from bunching together, which would allow for the growth of cancerous tumors.
Meanwhile, the much shorter molecules found in human hyaluronan do allow cell bunching, she says.
"Naked mole rats need good elasticity in their skin, because they don't have any fur," Seluanov told LiveScience. "When they move through their tunnels, it's important that they do not rupture their skin."
The demands of their subterranean lifestyle may explain why naked mole rats developed higher levels of hyaluronan in their skin in the first place, the researchers told LiveScience.
Gorbunova says that she and her team are now looking at ways to “manipulate enzymes to increase the length of hyaluronan in humans.”
The substance is already used as a replacement to Botox to fill wrinkle, and some doctors use it as a way to relieve arthritis in knee joints. So far, Gorbunova says, no significant side effects have been reported.
The scientists’ next project is to see if gene responsible for mole rat hyaluronan is effective in mice, and if that works, they plan to test the effectiveness in human cells.
“If we can figure out a way to manipulate enzymes to increase the length of hyaluronan, we may soon be able to not only prevent cancer but cure it in patients,” says Gorbunova.
“Our hope is that one day we’ll be able to not only stop the growth of primary tumors but to stop metastasis throughout the body.”
Gorbunova adds that she and her fellow researchers have also found a kind of beauty in the hideous mole rat. “When you look at them in still pictures, yes, they’re ugly. But they’re very busy, and in motion, there is some beauty to them,” she says.
Related stories on TakePart: