Published in Nature, the study suggests that the naked mole-rat Heterocephalus glaber carries a sugar which seemingly aids in the defence of tumour formation.
Curious by the observation that the naked mole-rat does not develop cancer in the later course of its 30 year lifespan, researchers pinpointed a substance existing between the cells of the creatures providing “an unusual resistance to cancer”. Hyaluronan (abbreviated HA) is a common feature of the extracellular mixture commonly found in animals. However, the naked mole-rat produces an atypical variant of HA with a higher molecular weight; five times that of a human.
This finding revealed a previously unknown adaptation in this species of mole-rat protecting against malignant forms of cancer. The high HA levels are due to mutations in the enzyme responsible for its synthesis. This lead to a substantial increase in the production of HA which is complemented by a less active enzyme responsible for breaking down the sugar.
In order to test their hypothesis that HA is the source for this cancer fighting phenomenon, the research team grafted cells from the naked mole-rat into mice which were tampered with to display signs of cancer. Levels of HA remained unchanged and observations indicated tumours did not develop in the mice. Therefore a connection can be drawn to the effect of HA on mutagenic cells and the possibility of developing cancer.
After publication in Nature, the researchers responsible for the findings received highly positive feedback from their peers.
It is a promising step towards the development of a cancer treatment in humans but it is important to note that such a welcome objective is still far from reality. Further study is needed to examine the effects of altering HA production in humans and how this change will affect the potential for mutations in our cells.