The Naked Mole-Rat's Cancer Resilience Makes It a Thing of Beauty...for Researchers

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The naked mole-rat isn't considered the most attractive animal, but scientists find the critter very eye-catching for its seemingly complete immunity to cancer. Meghan Murphy/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

The naked mole-rat is absolutely nobody's idea of a cute animal. With its absence of hair, tubular body and smushed face, its two buck teeth and its wrinkled, translucent skin, the poor creature looks like the fetus of a bigger animal, one that needs several more months cooking in the womb. There are no cute Internet memes involving the mole-rat, at least none in popular circulation. It is an unequivocally ugly beast.

Related: Why Elephants Don't Get Cancer—And What That Means For Humans

But if the naked mole-rat is not popular, it is nevertheless famous, at least in the cancer-fighting community, because this unattractive little animal has something that both Grumpy Cat and its owner would surely crave: a seemingly complete immunity to cancer.

Endemic to the Horn of Africa, Heterocephalus glaber has become popular with comparative oncologists who have been mystified by the rodent's resilience to malignancies. As a paper published in Nature by researchers at the University of Rochester in 2013 noted, "Multiyear observations of large naked mole-rat colonies did not detect a single incidence of cancer." Naked mole-rats can live for 30 years, much longer than other rodents.

The reasons for the naked mole-rat's cancer resilience are not yet fully understood. The authors of the Nature paper surmised that the naked mole-rat's secret lies in its special brand of hyaluronan, a polysaccharide glue between the cells of animals. The hyaluronan between the naked mole-rat's cells is of an especially high molecular mass, which allows it to prevent tumor creation. "We are very optimistic that this mechanism can be 'borrowed' from naked mole-rats to benefit humans," one of the researchers told the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Earlier this year, another group, also led by researchers from the University of Rochester (which appears to be a hotbed of naked mole-rat investigation), noticed something unusual about the INK4 gene cluster in the mole-rat's genome, which is also present in human DNA. In the human genome, INK4 encodes three tumor-suppressing proteins; in the naked mole-rat genome, INK4 encodes four. The extra protein is called pALT INK4a/b , and it appears to be especially adept at preventing oncogenesis.

What all this means for the future of human cancer care is unclear, but the naked mole-rat is giving us an increasingly lucid model of what a cancer-killer looks like: hairless, with buck teeth.