Blind mole rats may hold key to cancer

November 6, 2012

Blind mole rat (credit: Bassem18/Wikimedia Commons)

Some 23% of humans die of cancer, but blind mole rats — which can live for 21 years, an impressive age among rodents — seem to be immune to the disease.

Cell cultures from two species of blind mole rat, Spalax judaei and Spalax golani, behave in ways that render them impervious to the growth of tumors, according to work by Vera Gorbunova at the University of Rochester, Nature News reports.

“These animals are subject to terrific stresses underground: darkness, scarcity of food, immense numbers of pathogens and low oxygen levels. So they have evolved a range of mechanisms to cope with these difficulties,” explains co-author Eviatar Nevo at the University of Haifa in Israel, who has published papers on the creatures since 1961. “I truly believe work with these animals will bring a dramatic revolution in medicine.”

No biologist has yet worked out how to keep the cells of blind mole rats alive long-term in culture. But the rodents’ cells commit mass suicide when overcrowded, preventing uncontrollable proliferation, which may make the animals so long-lived: it could be a natural mechanism their bodies use to clear precancerous cells, stopping tumors in their tracks.