Finding Beauty in the Beast: A Tale of Naked Mole Rat Longevity

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Image by the Smithsonian National Zoo; used under Creative Commons.

The key to youth and beauty may be found in one of the world’s ugliest critters, the naked mole rat. These pink, hairless, and quite unnerving-looking rodents can live nearly 30 years. By comparison, similar sized rodents like mice only live for about 4 years. More impressively, naked mole rats virtually never get cancer. How is this possible? 

In a 2013 study, scientists at the University of Rochester sought the answer to naked mole rat youthfulness. They began by growing cells from a naked mole rat in dishes filled with liquid food. To their surprise, the researchers found that the liquid turned into a viscous jelly a few days later.

It turns the cells in the dishes ooze a unique polymer called high-molecular-mass hyaluronan, which jellified the liquid. Hyaluronan is a natural component of the cushion between our cells. It can hold about 1000 times its weight in water, giving it both cell lubricating and skin plumping properties. This is why it’s also a popular ingredient in anti-aging skincare products.

Ironically, wrinkly little mole rats contain massive amounts of this skin-plumping hyaluronan. The researchers at Rochester hypothesize that the extremely large size and sheer abundance of mole rat hyaluronan cushion their naked skin as they burrow through rough underground tunnels. 

They also find that this cushion effect has the side effect of preventing cancer. 

It turns out, abundant hyaluronan enhances contact inhibition between cells. Contact inhibition is a cell’s sense to stop growing and dividing when it bumps up against another cell. Cancerous cells lose this sense and grow uncontrollably. The extra hyaluronan in naked mole rats signals to their cells to stop growing much sooner than normal, allowing virtually no cell to go rogue and become cancerous.

While hyaluronan can inhibit cancerous growth, hyaluronan-based cancer prevention therapy in humans is not likely. We would need to genetically engineer all our cells to ooze super-sized naked mole rat hyaluronan. However, hyaluronan’s cushioning affects are useful for the treatment of other human ailments like arthritis and deflated cheeks.

Still, unlocking the secrets behind naked mole rats’ unusually long lives may spark other new ideas as scientists look for ways to boost human longevity. That’s why those who study the little beasts know that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

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