The cure to cancer might lie within a gooey substance created by a hairless rodent.
Two University of Rochester biologists discovered a chemical that allows naked mole rats to live an average of 30 years without cancer, according to a report released by the university on Wednesday.
“A lot of cancer research focuses on animals that are prone to cancer,” said Vera Gorbunova, one of the study’s authors. “We think it’s possible to learn strategies for preventing tumors by studying animals that are cancer-proof.”
The researchers decided to focus on the chemical when they noticed that a gooey substance from the hairless, buck-toothed rodent’s culture was clogging up vacuums. The high viscosity of the culture was notable, because the cultures of humans, mice and guinea pigs were not nearly as thick.
“Our lab technician was unhappy because she needed to disassemble the system and clean all this gooey stuff,” said Andrei Seluanov, the other study author, according to Nature. “I told my graduate student that we have to find out what the gooey substance is – it should be related to their cancer resistance. Of course, at that time it was just a wild guess.”
The biologists concluded that the goo was high molecular weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA) and decided to analyze it further to determine whether or not the chemical played a role in the rodent’s cancer-free state. Sure enough, when the chemical was removed, the naked mole rat’s cells were susceptible to tumors.
Their discoveries went even deeper once they identified the gene responsible for producing HMW-HA: HAS2. The naked mole rat’s HAS2 gene is different from that of any other animal, which could explain its cancer-resistant nature. The researchers also determined that HMW-HA builds up in the rodent’s tissues because they are very slow at recycling the chemical.
The scientists’ next project is to see if HMW-HA is effective in mice, and if that works, they plan to test the effectiveness in human cells.
“There’s indirect evidence that HMW-HA would work in people,” Seluanov said. “It’s used in anti-wrinkle injections and to relieve pain from arthritis in knee joints, without any adverse effects. Our hope is that it can also induce an anti-cancer response.”
The research was supported and funded by grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Ellison Medical Foundation.
The full research paper was published in Nature on Wednesday.