Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Secret to Cancer Immunity

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... Is the naked mole rat.

Not the most impressive-looking rodent in the animal kingdom, but it's certainly one of the most interesting.

Living underground in subterranean tunnels that can stretch up to three miles, the mole rat is one of the only mammals to live in a eusocial society with a fertile queen and sterile workers, very similar to in an ant colony.

It's long been known that these creatures have a variety of interesting adaptations, including the ability to live with hardly any oxygen or food, and to eat their own excrement. But they're also the longest living rodents on earth, with lifespans of up to 28 years, and – here's the big one – are essentially immune to cancer.

And researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered why. It turns out that while humans have only one contact-inhibition system for cancer based on a gene called p27, mole rats have two. The second system uses a gene called p16-ink4a to prevent cells from overgrowing at an earlier stage than p27, heading off potential cancers before they have a chance to start.

This finding is a big breakthrough for cancer research, particularly because humans also have the p16-ink4a gene, though it doesn't seem to play the same role in our cells as it does for the mole rats.

But more importantly from the naked mole rat's point of view, it ensures that these magnificent creatures will go down in history for more than just the whole "eating-their-own-faeces" thing.

So, you're welcome, mole rats.

- Brit Trogen

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