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The bizarre rodent with super powers: University of Cambridge lays bare the secrets of the naked mole-rat

They’re not blessed with good looks, it’s fair to say, and their homes – a harsh underground environment with as little as five per cent oxygen – aren’t too appealing.

But the naked mole-rat has more going for it than its hairless body, buck teeth and subterranean habitat might suggest.

Naked mole-rat (38460498)
Naked mole-rat (38460498)

For a start, they are remarkably long-lived for a rodent, living up to 37 years. And surviving for hours on end with little oxygen in burrows beneath the drier tropical grasslands of East Africa appears to be no problem for them.

But most intriguingly, they hardly ever get cancer.

It had been thought that was because their healthy cells were resistant to being converted into cancer cells.

But now researchers at the University of Cambridge have shown for the first time that genes that cause cancer in other rodents can lead to naked mole-rat cells becoming cancerous.

What sets them apart, it is now believed, is the microenvironment inside them – that is, the complex system of cells and molecules surrrounding their cells, including their immune system.

Rather than a cancer resistance mechanism within healthy cells, it is interactions within this microenvironment that appear to stop the initial stages of cancer from developing into tumours.

Dr Walid Khaled, one of the senior authors of the study from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and a member of Cancer Research UK’s breast cancer programme, said: “The results were a surprise to us and have completely transformed our understanding of cancer resistance in naked mole-rats. If we can understand what’s special about these animals’ immune systems and how they protect them from cancer, we may be able to develop interventions to prevent the disease in people.”

Naked mole-rats have a number of claims to fame. They are the only cold-blooded mammal and they lack pain sensitivity to chemical stimuli in their skin.

A naked-mole rat, which burrows underground (38965744)
A naked-mole rat, which burrows underground (38965744)

Researchers took 79 cell lines, grown from five different tissues – intestine, kidney, pancreas, lung and skin – from 11 individual naked mole-rats, before infecting cells with modified viruses to introduce cancer-causing genes.

In mice and rat cells, these are known to cause cancer, but they were not expected to cause do the same in naked mole-rat cells.

Fazal Hadi, lead researcher of the study from the breast cancer programme at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: “To our surprise, the infected naked mole-rat cells began to multiply and rapidly form colonies in the lab. We knew from this accelerated growth that they had become cancerous.”

The team injected these cells into mice and, within weeks, the mice formed tumours.

This demonstrated that it was the environment of the naked mole-rat’s body that prevents cancer from developing.

The team now intends to investigate these mechanisms, particularly the unique immune system of naked mole-rats.

In humans, our immune systems are known to play a critical role in protecting us from cancer, which modern immunotherapy treatments aim to exploit.

Dr Ewan St John Smith, one of the senior authors of the study from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology, said: “All our work with naked mole-rats, from studying their hypoxia resistance to pain insensitivity and cancer resistance, is aiming to leverage the extreme biology of this species to understand more about how our bodies work normally.”

This research, published in Nature, was funded by Cancer Research UK.

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