When it comes to cute and cuddly, mole rats are challenged by almost any standard. The blind mole rat is only slightly more appealing than its toothy, hairless distant kin, the naked mole rat. But both rodents share a remarkable characteristic that compensates for their lack of physical beauty: they may be the only mammals on earth naturally resistant to cancer.
Researchers at the University of Rochester, Professor Vera Gorbunova and Assistant Professor Andrei Seluanov, recently discovered how blind mole rats ward off the disease. And it's surprisingly different from the discovery they made three years ago concerning naked mole rats' cancer resistance.
The team, which also includes UR researchers Christopher Hine, Xiao Tian, and Julia Ablaeva; Andrei Gudkov at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo; and Eviatar Nevo at the University of Haifa in Israel believe their findings could lead to more effective cancer treatments in humans.
When blind mole rats grow cancer cells, they secrete large quantities of a "suicidal protein" called interferon beta. And the interferon quickly kills the cancer cells.
In naked mole rats, Gorbunova's team discovered that a specific gene in the rodent makes cancerous cells hypersensitive to overcrowding and stops the cells from multiplying.
"What's interesting about these two rodents is how they came to a solution, but approached it in two different ways," Gorbunova says.
Mole rats are important research subjects because they have unusually long lifespans, she says. Subterranean creatures with few predators, mole rats can live 20 to 30 years, so instead of evolving to ward off enemies, they've developed mechanisms for fighting illness, Gorbunova says.
The blind mole rat's interferon secretion is of special interest to Gorbunova because humans produce interferon, too, mostly as an anti-viral agent. Finding out what triggers interferon production in the rats may lead to finding a similar immune response in humans, she says.