mole rat

A chemical which makes naked mole rats immune to cancer could hold the key for developing new cancer treatments in people.

Scientists at the University of Rochester in New York discovered that the hairless rodents, which have never been known to get cancer, despite having a 30-year lifespan, are protected from developing tumours because their skin cells are high in a sugary substance known as high molecular weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA).

Study authors Andrei Seluanov and Vera Gorbunova found that when HMW-HA was removed, the cells became susceptible to tumours.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, could eventually lead to new cancer treatments in humans, the scientists said.

The team also identified the gene responsible for making the gooey substance, HAS2. But in the naked mole rats, the gene was different from HAS2 in all other animals.

The next step will be to test the effectiveness of HMW-HA in mice. If that test goes well, Seluanov and Gorbunova hope to try the chemical on human cells.

"There’s indirect evidence that HMW-HA would work in people," said Seluanov. "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."

Image: Naked mole rats are subterranean rodents that have never been known to get cancer. Credit courtesy of Brandon Vick / University of Rochester.