Naked Mole Rats and Cancer Resistance

Naked-Mole-Rat

Naked Mole Rat

WE haven’t seen much reported about this, but there may be big news arising from the study of a humble creature called the naked mole rat.

From the news office of the University of Rochester we read Scientists Discover Gene that ‘Cancer-Proofs’ Rodent’s Cells , subtitled: “Naked Mole Rat, the Only Known Cancerless Animal, Has Two-Tier Defense Against Cancer.” Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

Despite a 30-year lifespan that gives ample time for cells to grow cancerous, a small rodent species called a naked mole rat has never been found with tumors of any kind — and now biologists at the University of Rochester think they know why.

The findings, presented in today’s issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the mole rat’s cells express a gene called p16 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.

Here’s a link to the abstract of the published paper: Hypersensitivity to contact inhibition provides a clue to cancer resistance of naked mole-rat.

Let’s read on:

We think we’ve found the reason these mole rats don’t get cancer, and it’s a bit of a surprise,” says Vera Gorbunova, associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester and lead investigator on the discovery. “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.”

Now you can see why this is worth knowing about. We continue:

Naked mole rats are strange, ugly, nearly hairless mouse-like creatures that live in underground communities. Unlike any other mammal, these 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.

That’s probably enough excerpts to get you interested. You’ll want to click over to the University of Rochester to read it all. But here’s a little bit more:

Like many animals, including humans, the mole rats have a gene called p27 that prevents cellular overcrowding, but the mole rats use another, earlier defense in gene p16. Cancer cells tend to find ways around p27, but mole rats have a double barrier that a cell must overcome before it can grow uncontrollably.

“We believe the additional layer of protection conferred by this two-tiered contact inhibition contributes to the remarkable tumor resistance of the naked mole rat,” says Gorbunova in the PNAS paper.

We won’t be hearing from the creationist websites about this, unless it’s to “explain” things by saying that we lost our p16 gene in the Fall.

Update: See Naked Mole Rat’s Genome Sequenced.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Naked Mole Rats and Cancer Resistance

  1. retiredsciguy

    Curmy writes,
    “We won’t be hearing from the creationist websites about this, unless it’s to “explain” things by saying that we lost our p16 gene in the Fall.”

    Or, maybe it got washed away in The Flood.

  2. Gabriel Hanna

    I saw mole rats at the Pacific Science Center; I’d read of them before. They were interesting to me because they are the only “hive” mammals. Didn’t know they never got cancer.

  3. Gabe, these mole rats are quite a surprise to me. I never knew there were hive mammals.

  4. Kind of ironic since it looks like it’s recovering poorly from chemotherapy.

  5. Gabriel Hanna

    I never knew there were hive mammals.

    Convergent evolution, as they say.

  6. Gabriel Hanna says: “Convergent evolution, as they say.”

    It’s obviously a model that works, so I can imagine a species drifting into it. The problem is that there’s really no way out of it that I can see, so it’s an evolutionary dead-end. I have doubts about science fiction tales of intelligent, space-traveling hive creatures swarming down on our unsuspecting planet. Aliens, although fictional, should be at least halfway believable.

  7. Gabriel Hanna

    I have doubts about science fiction tales of intelligent, space-traveling hive creatures swarming down on our unsuspecting planet.Aliens, although fictional, should be at least halfway believable.

    How is a multi-cellular organism more believable than a hive?

    Think of a bee hive. It can make decisions about where to go find honey or where to locate the hive. That’s what the bee dancing is all about. When the bees all start dancing the same way the hive has reached a decision.

  8. Gabriel Hanna

    Look at all the things ants do without any sort of individual intelligence:

    building bridges
    temperature control of their colonies
    taking slaves
    fungus farming and aphid herding

    They don’t smoke, read and write, or lift weights, but other than that they do a lot of things humans do.

  9. Gabriel Hanna says: “Look at all the things ants do without any sort of individual intelligence …”

    They don’t do philosophy, or physics, or astronomy. They won’t build space ships. When the alien invaders come, they won’t be ants.

  10. Naked mole rats are also interesting because they’re a case of a spectacularly successful prediction on the basis of evolutionary theory: Richard Alexander described what a eusocial mammal would have to be like, and lo and behold, Heterocephalus glaber fit the bill. See Stanton Braude’s article in RNCSE for a basic discussion: http://ncseweb.org/rncse/17/4/predictive-power-evolutionary-biology-discovery-eusociality-

  11. Glenn, that’s a great article. Thank you. I’ll have to figure out a place to put it in my List-O-Links.

  12. Gabriel Hanna

    They don’t do philosophy, or physics, or astronomy. They won’t build space ships. When the alien invaders come, they won’t be ants.

    You can’t solve differential equations numerically in you head, yet somehow you can catch a ball thrown to you.

    Bees don’t understand vectors, but they can communicate distance and direction. Ants don’t understand statics, but they can build things.

    A space-traveling hive may not understand what its doing, but it may still do it. It’s alien; it is not going to do things in ways you necessarily find plausible.

    When they come, you going to tell them they are doing it wrong?

    I, for one, will welcome our new insect overlords.

  13. Gabe says: “I, for one, will welcome …”

    Arrrrgggghhh! I got sucked into playing along with the world’s longest setup.

  14. Gabriel Hanna

    Arrrrgggghhh! I got sucked into playing along with the world’s longest setup.

    That’s while you’ll be toiling in the sugar mines, whilst I will be an overseer.

  15. Gabriel Hanna fantasizes: “… whilst I will be an overseer.”

    This is a sad case. Some men use gerbils, you use naked mole rats. And you dream that I — a world-famous blogger — will be a sap-gatherer toiling under your lash.

  16. Gabriel Hanna

    This is a sad case. Some men use gerbils, you use naked mole rats.

    For that, I shall be sure to forgo the “encouragement” whip and break out the “cruel” whip.