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Subterranean hive mammals may offer cancer cure

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Boffins probing the secrets of fantastically long-lived and sexually active subterranean nudie hive rodents say they may be on the track of a preventive for cancer.

Regular readers will doubtless recall our earlier coverage of the East African naked mole-rat. These hairless burrowers are well-known for the fact that they live far longer than lesser, furry rodents - and better still, they remain sexually vigorous into their equivalent of extreme old age. Uniquely amongst mammals, too, the randy methuselah-rats live in hives featuring queens and workers, more in the style of insects. The naked queens of the underground mole-men remain capable of having children until well into their twenties - the equivalent of a human woman, nude or not, remaining in the physical condition of her thirties until seventy-odd.

Another remarkable attribute of the mole-rats is that they aren't thought to get cancer: or at least no case of cancer has ever been discovered among them, though they are intensively researched. Boffins at Rochester Uni in New York State now believe that this is because of a gene called p16 carried by the creatures, which makes their cells "claustrophobic". This has the effect of stopping the cells' proliferation when too many of them crowd together, cutting off runaway growth before it can start.

"We think we've found the reason these mole rats don't get cancer, and it's a bit of a surprise," says Vera Gorbunova, biology prof at Rochester Uni and lead investigator on the discovery. "It's very early to speculate about the implications, but if the effect of p16 can be simulated in humans we might have a way to halt cancer before it starts."

It seems that both humans and mole-rats have another cancer-defence gene called p27, but people lack the extra protection offered by p16.

"We believe the additional layer of protection conferred by this two-tiered contact inhibition contributes to the remarkable tumor resistance of the naked mole rat," says Gorbunova.

According to Rochester Uni spokespersons, Gorbunova and her fellow mole-rat experts are "now planning to delve deeper into the mole rat's genetics to see if their cancer resistance might be applicable to humans".

It's to be hoped that it will be. And perhaps, in conferring the nudist moles' abilities in warding off cancer, the boffins might also endow us all with the ability to stay nubile and sexy until we're really old, followed mole-rat style by a swift and comparatively painless shuffling off from mortal coils.

Meanwhile Gorbunova and Co's scholarly paper Hypersensitivity to contact inhibition provides a clue to cancer resistance of naked mole-rat can be read here by subscribers to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ®

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