Rat pack: Scientists warming up to African rodent

November 28, 2009 By PAUL J. WEBER , Associated Press Writer
In this Oct. 21, 2009 photo, a pregnant naked mole rat is shown at the Barshop Institute at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio. Naked mole rats are becoming more popular in research laboratories, where the seemingly invulnerable rodents have surprised scientists with their ability to live up to 30 years and their potential to offer insights into human health. They're being used to study everything from aging to cancer to strokes. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP) -- Naked mole rats don't get cancer. They shrug off brushes with acid and age so well, some are older than the college-aged researchers handling them.

"They really are from Mars, I think," said Thomas Park, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Actually, they're from the horn of Africa. But naked mole rats are becoming more popular in research laboratories, where the seemingly invulnerable rodents have surprised scientists with their ability to live up to 30 years and their potential to offer insights into human health. They're being used to study everything from aging to cancer to strokes.

About 1,500 naked mole rats live in clear tanks connected by long tubes at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, where researcher Rochelle Buffenstein nurtures the largest colony in the U.S. At least a half-dozen other universities also have colonies.

Nearly blind and hairless, the rodents resemble wrinkled spring rolls with tiny legs and buck teeth. They normally live in underground tunnels with a social structure comparable to bees. Buffenstein is studying their longevity.

Whereas laboratory mice live an average two years, naked mole rats can live up 30 years with little creaking in old age. Buffenstein said their bone quality doesn't start to diminish until they're about 24 years old.

They look fragile - several can fit into a palm, and it's possible to see beneath their pinkish skin - but naked mole rats are like tough, tube-shaped stuntmen.

Squirting lemon juice on a cut would sting anyone, but Park said naked mole rats don't feel pain because they lack a neurotransmitter known as substance P. The discovery has opened up ideas for pain research.

Park and researcher John Larson report in next month's journal NeuroReport that the brains of adult naked mole rats can withstand oxygen depravation for a half-hour or more. That knowledge could eventually help in stroke research, Park said.

Cancer? Buffenstein said the disease has never been found in the rodent.

A study published in October found their resistance may come from a gene called p16 that prevents cells from crowding together. Cancer occurs when cells grow uncontrollably.

Vera Gorbunova, an associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester who published the findings, said she hopes to have her own colony of mole rats to study by next summer.

"We shouldn't just be looking where it's easy to look," Gorbunova said. "We should be looking in species where we can find something ... instead of studying mice, which live relatively short lives."

As recently as the 1990s, Buffenstein said only she and one other group were really studying naked mole rats. Now she expects them to be common in laboratories by 2020.

"It takes time for people to realize that an animal has got a lot going for it," Buffenstein said.

On the Net: UT Health Science Center: http://www.barshop.uthscsa.edu/

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explore further: Scientists compare lazy rats to teenagers

Related Stories

Naked mole-rat unfazed by oxidative stress

October 9, 2006

The long-lived naked mole-rat shows much higher levels of oxidative stress and damage and less robust repair mechanisms than the short-lived mouse, findings that could change the oxidative stress theory of aging.

Ugly duckling mole rats might hold key to longevity

October 5, 2007

Who would have thought that the secrets to long life might exist in the naked, wrinkled body of one of the world's ugliest animals? Probably not many, but current research may be leading seekers of the Fountain of Youth to ...

Naked mole-rats bear chili pepper heat

January 29, 2008

Pity the tiny naked mole-rat. The buck-toothed, sausage-like rodent lives by the hundreds in packed, oxygen-starved burrows some six feet under ground. It is even cold-blooded -- which, as far as we know, is unique among ...

In the Palace of the Naked Mole-Rat

February 24, 2009

Naked Mole-Rats are ugly, but also very interesting mammals. Now scientists want to find out, if the males influence the distribution of male and female progeny.

Scientists discover gene that 'cancer-proofs' rodent's cells

October 26, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Despite a 30-year lifespan that gives ample time for cells to grow cancerous, a small rodent species called a naked mole rat has never been found with tumors of any kind—and now biologists at the University ...

Recommended for you

Changes in the immune system lead to success

August 30, 2016

The sequencing of the Atlantic cod genome in 2011 demonstrated that this species lacks a crucial part of its immune system. In a follow-up study, Kjetill S. Jakobsen and collaborators have investigated a large number of additional ...

Environmental DNA uncovers biodiversity in rivers

August 30, 2016

Most natural ecosystems are heavily affected by changes to the human habitat, climate change or invasive species. In order to protect these ecosystems, one needs to know which organisms live in them. Therefore, assessing ...

Mitosis study finds potential cancer target

August 30, 2016

Structural biologists show in a new study that an apparently key step in the process of cell division depends on a unique interaction among specific proteins, including one that is strongly linked to cancer. Their hope now ...

Kiwi birds younger than originally thought, research shows

August 30, 2016

New Zealand's kiwi may be one of the world's oddest birds – flightless, nocturnal, an enigmatic dirt digger with nostrils at the end of its long bill. But the national symbol also has a lot to tell the world about evolution ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.