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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Freaks of Nature

Published June 26, 2013 2:15 PM by Michael Jones

The term “freak of nature” is always used in a negative way -- for example, Jaws was a freak of nature (all 4 times). Any mutation or deformity can be called something of a freak of nature, but that doesn’t always mean it’s a bad thing. The entire concept of Darwinism is based on certain mutations being beneficial to a species rather than harmful. In the case of the Naked Mole Rat, an evolutionary trait to cope with their surroundings could become one of the keys to the improved treatment of cancers.

A recent article from the New York Times chronicled the work of a University of Rochester research team led by Biologists, Vera Gorbunova, PhD, and Andrei Seluanov, PhD, on the surprisingly cancer-immune qualities of the rodents. The team reported a unique trait in the Mole Rat, which seemed to prevent it from developing cancers. According to the piece, Hyaluronan, a molecule that stops cells from multiplying in excess by attaching itself to the CD44 receptor and instructing the cells, is seen in the East African Species of rodent in greater quantity and with a different molecular make up.

The compound makes up “the sticky gel in which our cells are embedded,” and is not only more plentiful in the Naked Mole Rat, but also has a distinctly longer genetic form. Unlike humans and typical laboratory mice, whose cells divide continuously until they bump into each other, the Naked Mole Rat’s cells are scarcer and “stop growing at a third the density.” The team suspects a side-effect of this trait is the “especially stretchy” skin of the mole rat, which also helps them navigate tight spaces and, in this case, the longer form of Hyaluronan could “be moved into humans” (according to Gorbunova) for an improved method of treatment.

As human beings develop a broader knowledge of their own bodies, they are also gathering knowledge and ideas from nature. The article also pointed out another type of rodent, the Blind Mole Rat (which, strangely enough, bares no relation to the Naked Mole Rat as the two species are from completely different parts of the world) is similar in that it also develops cancers very rarely. This is due to signals from the brain “causing [the cells] to commit suicide,” rather than a physiological response like the one in the Naked Mole Rat.

The rise of genetic testing and molecular diagnostics has given way to drastic breakthroughs in the treatment of any number of diseases. An approach based on what has already been seen and developed in nature could be just what was needed in the fight against cancers. Of course, this is all still in the earliest stages of research, but the possibility of better treatment options always creates excitement, especially in a field with so much potential. 

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