Not the cells, but the unique immune system probably makes the naked mole rat virtually immune to cancer.

Naked mole rats are curious critters. For example, they can get very old and turn out to be virtually immune to cancer. Scientists are particularly interested in the latter and numerous studies have already been done. Although researchers thought this particular trait of the naked mole rat was getting better and better, a new study gives the story of the cancer-resistant naked mole rat a surprising twist.

Naked mole rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are burrowing rodents originating from East Africa. Among scientists, the naked mole rat is immensely popular. And that’s not so crazy either. The rather unattractive critter has a lot of impressive features. They can reach a respectable age of 37 and are the only cold-blooded mammal in the world. Although that is quite remarkable, it does not stop here, so the animal can at least achttien minutes without oxygen,it needs a lot of CO2 to function and seems to be insensitive to some forms of pain. Researchers hope the studies will provide tools to help people live longer healthy lives.

Until now, it was thought that naked mole rats almost never got cancer because their healthy cells would not be able to transform into cancer cells. However, this appears to have a loose end. In the new study, the researchers analyzed 79 different cell lines (a collection of equal cells) grown from five different tissues (intestine, kidney, pancreas, lung and skin) from 11 different naked mole rats. The researchers then infected these cells with genes known to cause cancer in the cells of other rodents, such as mice and rats. Remarkably, the healthy cells of the naked mole rats began to turn into cancer cells. “To our surprise, the infected cells began to multiply,” says study leader Fazal Hadi. “Because of this accelerated growth, we knew that they had turned into cancer cells.”

The experiment shows that the immunity to cancer of the naked mole rat is therefore not down to its cells. But what is behind the cancer-free existence of the naked mole rat? According to the researchers, the naked mole rat is distinguished by its immune system. The latter would prevent tumors from developing. The researchers came to this finding after injecting the cancer-altered cells into mice. Within weeks, the mice formed tumors. This suggests that unique conditions in the body of the naked mole rat prevents the further development of cancer.

In summary, contrary to what was previously claimed, the cells of naked mole rats can turn into cancer cells. But thanks to certain mechanisms in the little body of the critter, the multiplication of these cancer cells is stopped. “The results are surprising and have completely changed our understanding of the cancer resistance of naked mole rats,” said researcher Walid Khaled. “If we can understand what is so special about the immune system of these animals and how it protects them from cancer, we may be able to develop interventions to prevent the disease in humans.” And the latter is the main goal. By understanding exactly what makes the naked mole rat immune to cancer, we can also improve our understanding of the early stages of the disease in humans. This can then lead to better treatment plans, or even to new ways in which we can prevent the disease.

Follow-up research is already in the pipeline. Because the researchers want to clarify which mechanisms prevent cancer cells from the naked mole rat from developing into tumors. The team wants to focus on the unique immune system of the critter. Our immune system, for example, also plays a crucial role in protecting against cancer, as it kills and cleans up cancer cells. And that’s why this is a very interesting way to go.

Stephan Meed

A southern gentleman at heart, Stephan is a man you'll find mudding, off-roading, and fishing on a typical weekend. However, a nutritionist by profession, he is also passionate about fitness and health through natural means. He writes mostly health-related content for the Scientific Origin.