Having thick hyaluronan might have helped increase the elasticity of the mole rat’s skin, allowing it to live in small tunnels underground. This trait might then have accidentally developed a new role of preventing cancer.
The naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber) displays exceptional longevity, with a maximum lifespan exceeding 30 years. This is the longest reported lifespan for a rodent species and is especially striking considering the small body mass of the naked mole rat. In comparison, a similarly sized house mouse has a maximum lifespan of 4 years. In addition to their longevity, naked mole rats show an unusual resistance to cancer. Multi-year observations of large naked mole-rat colonies did not detect a single incidence of cancer. Here we identify a mechanism responsible for the naked mole rat’s cancer resistance. We found that naked mole-rat fibroblasts secrete extremely high-molecular-mass hyaluronan (HA), which is over five times larger than human or mouse HA. This high-molecular-mass HA accumulates abundantly in naked mole-rat tissues owing to the decreased activity of HA-degrading enzymes and a unique sequence of hyaluronan synthase 2 (HAS2). Furthermore, the naked mole-rat cells are more sensitive to HA signalling, as they have a higher affinity to HA compared with mouse or human cells. Perturbation of the signalling pathways sufficient for malignant transformation of mouse fibroblasts fails to transform naked mole-rat cells. However, once high-molecular-mass HA is removed by either knocking down HAS2 or overexpressing the HA-degrading enzyme, HYAL2, naked mole-rat cells become susceptible to malignant transformation and readily form tumours in mice. We speculate that naked mole rats have evolved a higher concentration of HA in the skin to provide skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels. This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity to this species.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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