Scientists studied naked mole rats to avoid aging and cancer
According to new research conducted by University of Cambridge scientists, naked mole rats age healthily, very rarely get cancer, and are numb to acid.
The team hopes to utilize these insights to find better treatment methods for human illnesses and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, according to an institutional press release.
“It’s great that medicine can now help people live longer, but unfortunately, we can’t deal very well with aging-related illnesses like dementia,” says Professor Ewan St. John Smith, Director of the Cambridge University Naked Mole Rat Initiative.
“If we can understand why naked mole rats don’t really get these problems, there’s an awful lot to be learned.”
Also known as the sand puppy, naked mole rats are pink, nearly hairless subterranean rodents that are the only known mammal to be cold-blooded.
Smith suggests that their unusual habitat may account for their immunity to acid. “Our research identified a genetic variation in naked mole rats that means acid acts like an anesthetic to their nerves,” he says.
“We think it’s because in the wild, these animals live in large colonies underground where their exhaled carbon-dioxide builds up and reacts with moisture to make carbonic acid. This caused them to evolve so that acid doesn’t cause them pain and they can stay safe in their burrows.”
Generally, the lifespan of an animal is parallel to its size. Based on this, naked mole rats were supposed to live around three to five years, which is the lifespan of a mouse. However, their maximum lifespan is more than 30 years, and the current record holder was 39-year old when died.
Apart from their unusually long lifespan, they age healthily and usually die in a fight with another animal rather than from an illness. Similarly, only a few cases of cancer have ever been detected in mole rats, while other small animals, like mice, are even more prone to cancer than humans.
“It’s great that medicine can now help people live longer, but unfortunately, we can’t deal very well with aging-related illnesses like dementia. If we can understand why the naked mole rats don’t really get these problems, there’s an awful lot to be learned,” Smith says.
Mimicking their natural burrows
Smith keeps five colonies of naked mole rats for this research. The team microchipped each of them so that they could distinguish them.
The animals rely on their surroundings and their behavior to remain warm because they are cold-blooded and unable to produce their own body heat. To maintain them at 30°C (86°F), the research includes heat cables flowing under certain cages. The animals typically opt to sleep on top of these cages in a ball to preserve heat. Animals typically opt to sleep on top of them.
Moreover, the lab must be maintained humid in order to prevent flaky skin on naked mole rats. They need to be housed in cages under red light and connected by tunnels in order to simulate their natural burrows, which requires plenty of space.
“We want to track the naked mole rats over time, so we need microchips to know who’s who. It is possible to study them in a lab environment, but they are an unusual species and not every university is set up to look after them. So, we try to facilitate collaborations in the UK and beyond," Smith concludes.
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