With a Face Only a Mother Could Love, This Naked Mole Rat May Hold the Key to Dodging Cancer

Naked Mole Rat

Story at-a-glance -

  • The naked mole rat is a tiny burrowing rodent native to parts of Africa. These little guys are only about four inches long and, as you might guess, hairless.
  • Naked mole rats come equipped with a highly unique set of physical characteristics. These include a lack of pain sensors in the skin, an ability to endure incredibly high levels of carbon dioxide in underground tunnels, a talent for running backwards as fast as they run forwards, an extraordinarily long lifespan, and unlike other mammals … they never get cancer.
  • Scientists believe it is the “gloop” mole rats produce – a sugar-based natural polymer – that prevents tumors from growing. The gloop, which is actually high-molecular-mass hyaluronan (HMM-HA), is a chemical scientists hope may one day be produced in human tissues.

By Dr. Becker

Meet Heterocephalus glaber, better known as the naked mole rat. If ever there was a critter best described as “so ugly it’s cute,” this little fellow fits the bill!

The naked mole rat, also called the desert mole rat or sand puppy, is truly one of a kind – it’s the only species currently classified in the genus Heterocephalus.

Naked Mole Rats Possess Highly Unusual Physical Traits

This burrowing rodent is native to eastern and southern Africa. Naked mole rats are small in size – about four inches long, and hairless except for the random whisker. Their diet consists of roots and tubers they find underground.

Naked mole rats possess a collection of extremely unique physical characteristics. Among them: They are not warm-blooded and cannot regulate their body temperature (unlike all other mammals); they have very low metabolic and respiratory rates; and they lack pain sensation in the skin. Mole rats are equipped with the same pain receptors (nociceptors) as other mammals, but they don’t appear to function. It’s as if they’re switched off.

These little guys can also survive incredibly high levels of carbon dioxide that build up in their tunnels – levels that would kill a human in minutes.

And the weirdness continues. Mole rats can run backwards as fast as they run forwards, and they can move their comical looking incisor teeth independently of one another (think chopsticks).

Naked mole rats are also one of only two known eusocial mammals, meaning their social structure replicates that of a bee colony or termites. One female, the queen mole rat, mates with a few fertile males, and the rest of the colony – typically around 80 or so – are sterile.

The lifespan of naked mole rats is over 30 years, which is 10 to 20 times longer than the lifespan of their closest relatives, rats and mice. Based on their size, mole rats should live only a few years, yet they outlast much larger mammals that are considered long-lived. One reason they are around so long could be because these tiny rodents don’t get cancer.

And now scientists think they know why.

It’s the Gloop

The naked mole rat’s avoidance of cancer is attributed to a polysaccharide, which is a “gloopy” sugar-based natural polymer that prevents tumors from growing. The discovery was made by researchers at the University of Rochester in New York whose study was published in June in the journal Nature1. The scientists believe their findings “open new avenues for cancer prevention and life extension.”

The gloop -- technical name, high-molecular-mass hyaluronan (HMM-HA) – performs as a lubricant or oil that allows mole rats to navigate even the smallest, most elaborate tunnels. The chemical makes the rodents so flexible “They can virtually turn somersaults in their skin,” says Dr. Chris Faulks of Queen Mary, University of London.

Apparently the power of HMM-HA to prevent tumors is an accident of nature, but certainly an encouraging one. Scientists hope in the future it may be possible to produce the same chemical in human tissues … but without the side effect, as Dr. Faulks says, of making us look like naked mole rats!

Looks aside, this one-of-a-kind little critter, according to The Telegraph, has gained a great deal of respect in the scientific community:

“Robust to the point of near-indestructibility, living in perfect conflict-free communes, immune to pain and capable of spending years underground at a time, this meekest of animals could, should the apocalypse strike, be in pole position to inherit the Earth.”

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