Unlike any other mammal, naked mole rate communities consist of queens and workers more reminiscent of bees than rodents. Naked mole rats can live up to 30 years, which is exceptionally long for a small rodent. Despite large numbers of naked mole-rats under observation, there has never been a single recorded case of a mole rat contracting cancer, says Gorbunova. Adding to their mystery is the fact that mole rats appear to age very little until the very end of their lives.
The mole rat’s cells express p16, a gene that makes the cells “claustrophobic,” stopping the cells’ proliferation when too many of them crowd together, cutting off runaway growth before it can start. The effect of p16 is so pronounced that when researchers mutated the cells to induce a tumor, the cells’ growth barely changed, whereas regular mouse cells became fully cancerous.
“It’s very early to speculate about the implications, but if the effect of p16 can be simulated in humans we might have a way to halt cancer before it starts.” says Vera Gorbunova, associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester and lead investigator on the discovery.
In 2006, Gorbunova discovered that telomerase—an enzyme that can lengthen the lives of cells, but can also increase the rate of cancer—is highly active in small rodents, but not in large ones.
Until Gorbunova and Seluanov’s research, the prevailing wisdom had assumed that an animal that lived as long as we humans do needed to suppress telomerase activity to guard against cancer. Telomerase helps cells reproduce, and cancer is essentially runaway cellular reproduction, so an animal living for 70 years has a lot of chances for its cells to mutate into cancer, says Gorbunova. A mouse’s life expectancy is shortened by other factors in nature, such as predation, so it was thought the mouse could afford the slim cancer risk to benefit from telomerase’s ability to speed healing.
While the findings were a surprise, they revealed another question: What about small animals like the common grey squirrel that live for 24 years or more? With telomerase fully active over such a long period, why isn’t cancer rampant in these creatures?
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