The underground naked mole rat has been found to produce a hybrid protein that prevents tumour growth. The discovery was made by scientists at the University of Rochester in New York.
The protein is associated with a cluster of genes (called a locus) that is also found in humans and mice. It is the job of that locus to encode several cancer-fighting proteins. The locus found in naked mole rats encodes a total of four cancer-fighting proteins, while the human and mouse version encodes only three.
Despite their names, naked mole rats are neither moles nor rats (nor are they totally hairless). These remarkable creatures are more closely related to porcupines and guinea pigs. They are subterranean rodents that have never been known to get cancer despite having a 30-year lifespan.
Naked mole rats live in the horn of Africa and are native to Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. They’re not blind, yet their eyes are very small and naked mole rats will often close them when they run through the tunnels.
The findings by Seuanov and Gorbunova research team have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In an effort to determine whether the effective protein is also found in mice and humans, the researchers tried to screen mouse and human cells and tissues for the protein hybrid, but were unsuccessful. “While our work doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the protein exists under some conditions in mice and humans, the results suggest that it’s highly unlikely,” said Gorbunova.
Tests have shown that the protein can prevent human cells from turning cancerous, and researchers hope to use it develop new treatments in the future for patients with cancer.