Why naked mole rats are cancer-proof

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

lab rat
A naked mole rat scrounges around in the University of Rochester lab.

Though the naked mole rat on the cartoon show Kim Possible was as cute as a button, in real life, these creatures are as ugly as they come. The pink squeakers have big yellow-stained teeth sticking out of a scrunched up face, and a fleshy body to complete that whole “old man” look they’ve got going on.

Well, the rats may have their fair share of wrinkles, but apparently they hold the secret to living a long healthy life, and researchers from the University of Rochester have cracked their code.

Earlier this year, the genetic scientists Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov began to study a group of naked mole rats. They really wanted to know why the hideous animals are cancer-proof and live up to 30 years old – which is about 10 times longer than their rodent cousins. What they found was the rats had an extra molecule of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is responsible for taking the instructions from DNA and building proteins.

Usually, there are only 3 RNA molecules in an animal cell. One of them serves as a working copy of DNA, which can never leave the center of a cell called the nucleus.The copy moves out of the nucleus, where the other two RNA molecules read the directions and actually build the proteins.

It’s a very complicated process and it’s amazing our bodies do it correctly as often as they do, but there are times where they misread the directions and make “junk” proteins. Sometimes the mistakes are perfectly harmless, but other times, it can lead to something as serious as cancer! This is where the naked mole rat’s extra RNA comes in handy.

The researchers call their fourth molecule 28S, and it basically adds an extra round of proofreading for super thorough editing; this additional step makes sure there’s less “junk” produced. “Aging is a combination of various things going bad; and one of those things is that cells start to accumulate protein junk,” said Gorbunova. “This protein can be recycled, in the young, but as we get older, this recycling process also is not perfect, so we start to accumulate this junk that aggregates, and clogs up the cells.”

The researchers hope their discovery will lead to medicine that can either prevent or remove any junk in our proteins and increase our lifespans!

Featured image courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Flickr. Image of naked mole rat in lab and video courtesy of University of Rochester.