Survival secrets of naked mole rats

July 12, 2012 9:00:42 PM PDT
An odd-looking mammal is offering new clues into the possibility of a longer life or even a cancer-free life for people.

Rufus the naked mole rat achieved near celebrity status in the cartoon series Kim Possible.

Even in real life, at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, these nearly hairless buck-toothed rodents seem to charm young audiences despite their not-so-cuddly appearance.

Across town, there's even more excitement among grown-up scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

"The naked mole rat is a treasure-trove for biomedical research," said Thomas Park, a neuroscientist at UIC.

These rodents may hold the key to helping humans live longer, healthier lives.

Over millions of years their bodies have evolved to allow them to survive in less than ideal conditions deep underground in South Africa. Their list of unusual traits is impressive.

"They are almost indestructible, yes," said Park.

They live a really long time, up to 30 years, which is about ten times longer than other rodents their size.

Also, they don't get cancer.

"People have tried to give these animals cancer, and they reject them," said neuroscientist John Larson.

Adding to their super survival powers, researchers have discovered that the mole rats do not feel chronic pain. There is also their brain's ability to bounce back in oxygen-deprived conditions.

UIC researchers are studying this trait, which they say could be the key to helping humans find better ways to treat stroke and heart attack.

"How the brains of these rodents are equipped to do that, and if we figure out how they are equipped to do that we can try to equip the human brain with that capacity," said Larson.

It turns out their brains act much like the brains of human babies. The survival secret is the way the brain regulates calcium.

Their brain cells have special calcium channels that close during oxygen deprivation, protecting the brain from cell death. The brains of human babies can do this too, but as we age, these calcium channels no longer close. That can be a problem during a heart attack when oxygen is deprived.

Understanding this process could lead to a fast-acting medication given to help protect the brain during an emergency.

"So I suffer a heart attack, I hit the ground, I want the EMS guys to come and give me something to help me be more like a juvenile - like a mole rat," said Park.

In other research, scientists have now discovered that we share 178 unique gene families with mole rats.

The key is to find the pathways that make the rats age better and stay cancer free, then find a way to modify human genes to do the same.

"We could see breakthroughs in a relatively short period of time," said Park.

According to UIC scientists and others, what is being rapidly uncovered about these superstar rodents is just the tip of the iceberg. They say stay tuned: We will be hearing a lot more about these animals.

'Underground Supermodels', an article by Thomas Park and Rochelle Buffenstein the possible health breakthroughs from naked mole rats

Thomas Park's web page at UIC

John Larson's web page at UIC

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