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Blind Mole Rats’ Cells Self-Destruct Before They Can Turn Cancerous

Researchers tease out the secret behind blind mole rats' resistance to cancer

As if blind mole rats weren’t odd enough creatures already, they also do not get cancer. Now, geneticists have worked out why the species is spared from the emperor of all maladies. Their cells, it turns out, kill themselves with a poisonous protein when they begin to multiply out of control, Wired reports.

Mole rats as a whole are a strange bunch. They live in underground burrows throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East. The naked mole rat, in particular, is the only known cold-blooded mammal,  does not experience pain and, along with the Damaraland mole rat, is the only known mammal to live by eusociality—a hierarchical society like bees and ants, with a queen and workers.

In 2011, researchers discovered that these strange animals are also cancer-proof. Once their cells begin to divide too much, they simply stop, as if they had an off button. The researchers were surprised, however, when they continued their work, this time with blind mole rats, and found a completely different mechanism behind that species’ cancer resistance.

The team took cells from the rodents and put them in a culture that would force them to multiply beyond what would happen within the animals’ bodies. For the first seven to 20 multiplications, things looked fine, but beyond 20 multiplications the cells started rapidly dying off.

When they took a closer look at the cells that died, they found a special protein caused the malicious culprits to undergo a “massive necrotic cell death” within three days.

The researchers speculated to Wired that, because blind mole rats live in a unique habitat almost entirely underground, they could “could perhaps afford to evolve a long lifespan, which includes developing efficient anti-cancer defenses.” Indeed, the animals often live more then 20 years, a lifespan long beyond any other rodent’s.

Of course, the hope is that researchers could eventually take a hint from the mole rats and develop new therapies to benefit humans, but it will take much more prodding into the rodents’ biological mysteries before that potential could ever emerge from the tunnels into the light.

More from Smithsonian.com:

14 Fun Facts About Naked Mole Rats  
Five Must See Webcams at the Zoo 

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