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Can a rodent that simply can’t get cancer offer paths to better treatments?

naked mole rat/Roman Klementschitz

Recently, we ran a piece on how current cancer research may be hitting a wall because many disease-promoting proteins are undruggable– they just don’t have the external binding sites to which anti-cancer agents might attach.

One newer response strategy has been to find life forms that just do not get cancer (whose biology has some relevance to that of humans). Hence the interest in the naked mole rat, which has spent the last 24 million years underground. In “The Anti-Mouse: Could a hairless African rodent be our secret weapon in the war on cancer?” (Slate, Nov. 16, 2011), Daniel Engber reports on a researcher who is frustrated because she cannot give cancer to a naked mole rat:

Unlike mice, which die of cancer by the crateful, not a single one of her animals has ever developed a naturally occurring tumor. Nor has any other naked mole rat seen anywhere in the world.

She’s tried everything, includingpouring carcinogens right down their throats, but

“You name it,” the professor says, “we tried all the kinds of toxins that are out there, and the naked mole rat seems to be very resilient and resistant.” A drug regime that would be murderous to mouse cells must be doubled or tripled or even multiplied 50 times over, she explains, before it would have similar effects on a naked mole rat.

Nothing worked, and the rats, while seeming helpless, are so resilient that even normal lab precautions against infecting them are superfluous. They also have a natural life span of about 25 years (possibly related to the other facts mentioned … ).

One question is, will the mole rat’s strategy, if discovered, be relevant to humans, given that it is quite unusual among rodents in other ways as well?:

Both naked mole rats and their Damaraland cousins live as ants or termites do, in a rigid, insectile society. A lone female produces all the offspring, while lesser castes forage, defend the colony, and care for her young. … No other mammals are known to assemble like this, under a monarch’s rule.

One curious puzzle is, if the mole rat lived in underground isolation for so long, how did it develop such disease resistance? With humans, for example, isolation from a disease is precisely what makes it deadly. The explicit point of strategies like vaccination is to build resistance through controlled, limited exposure.

There is, of course, only one way to find out.

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The critter didn't live millions of years underground. Only since the flood some 4500 years ago. Maybe its all that dirt, and disease within it, stired up its defence system so much it can handle anything.Robert Byers
November 18, 2011
12:33 AM

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