The latest possible cure for cancer may come from the world's longest living rats, which laugh off the disease with a super sugar molecule called HMM-HA, new research finds.
The discovery really is sweet, as humans might be able to boost their HA power, improving their chances for longevity and warding off cancer.
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It's certainly worked well for naked mole rats, since they live around 6 times longer than the average rodent.
HMM-HA (the acronym for Hyaluronan) prevents cancer and aging because it stops cells from overcrowding and forming tumors, according to scientists from the University of Rochester and the University of Haifa. "Overcrowding," in this case, essentially means that the super sugar prevents cells from coming into unnecessary contact with each other and growing into something bigger.
"Contact inhibition, a powerful anticancer mechanism, discovered by the Rochester team, arresting cell growth when cells come into contact with each other, is lost in cancer cells," said Eviatar Nevo from the University of Haifa group, in a press release. "The experiments showed that when HMM-HA was removed from naked mole rat cells, they became susceptible to tumors and lost their contact inhibition."
Human cells can secrete HMM-HA too, the researchers determined, but the trick in future will be to control that properly. If the sugar wards off cancer and aging in humans as it does in rats, it could be our proverbial fountain of youth.
Already, researchers are adding the super sugar to anti-wrinkle skin care products. It's also used in certain arthritis treatments.
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It's at first puzzling to think that such a homely, wrinkled rat could be tied to skin care, but that gets back to the purpose of the miracle molecule in the first place.
Naked mole rats live in underground tunnels. They need to zip in and out of the tunnels with ease. HMM-HA evolved in higher concentrations, the researchers suspect, to provide the rats with skin elasticity. The rat skin might look wrinkled and folded, but it has a rubbery quality to it that enables the skin to somewhat snap back into proper place.
A life without wrinkles and cancer sounds good to me. Not a single incident of cancer has ever been detected in naked mole rats, so hopefully one day our species will be equally cancer free.
Image: Wolfgang Thieme/Corbis