Underground critters could be the key to aging and cancer

Getting old and getting cancer. These are two things a many people worry about and many scientists are trying to fight. Unique critters called naked mole rats could be the key to preventing both.

Doctor Rochelle Buffenstein, Professor at the University Of Texas Health Science Center, is studying the critters. She has about 2,500 of the animals at the facility. Based on their size, they should only live about six years, but they live to be 35 and are highly active until they're 25.

"Which would be equivalent to a human at the age of about 90 maintaining good health and good function," said Buffenstein.

Based on our size, Buffenstein says humans should only live to be 40.

"Humans and naked mole rats live between four and five times as long as they should," said Buffenstein.

Unlike the rodents, humans get cancer.

"We've never seen a single tumor in our colony," she said.

While most mice die from tumors, researchers painted the mole rats' skin with carcinogens, but no tumors developed. Buffenstein says we share 178 unique gene families with mole rats. The key is to find the pathways that make the rats age better and stay cancer-free. Then find a way to modify human genes to do the same.

The doctor says her goal isn't to help humans live hundreds of years.

"But we would like to live a healthy life for at least maybe 95 years rather than 60 years," she said.

Something she hopes will one day be the naked truth.

Doctor Buffenstein believes she is getting close to finding the pathways that could help her figure out why the mole rats age so well and do not develop cancer. But, translating the findings to help humans could take a lot longer.

BACKGROUND: Dr. Rochelle Buffenstein of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies is a native of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) who was educated largely in South Africa. She trapped many of the naked mole rats she studies herself and then brought the whole colony along when she moved to the United States.

Naked mole rats are the source of great interest in an area of study called "comparative gerontology" or "comparative biology of aging." In short: Usually, you can make a reasonably accurate prediction of how long a mammal will live based on its size. The larger the mammal, the longer it lives. But there are outliers, and naked mole rats are a notable exception. They're about the same size as mice, which live up to 4 years. Naked mole rats live 30 years or more, and maintain surprisingly good health throughout.
(Source: University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio)

THE RESEARCH: Comparative biology of aging highlights those unusual species that are not only able to live considerably longer than expected on the basis of their body size but also maintain good health until very late in life. A key focus of the research undertaken in the Buffenstein lab addresses the cellular and molecular mechanisms that the longest-lived rodent, the naked mole-rat uses to thwart the aging process and maintain cancer-free good health well into their third decade of life. In particular, researchers currently are using a genomic and metabolomics approach to address the underlying mechanisms that facilitate the maintenance of protein stability and genomic integrity in rodents of disparate longevity. (Source: University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio)


1) Despite their names, naked mole rats are neither moles nor rats (nor are they totally hairless). They are more closely related to porcupines and guinea pigs.

2) Naked mole rats live in the horn of Africa and are native to Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

3) Soldier mole rats defend the colony from both predators-mostly snake-and foreign mole rats, which they identify as foreign by their odor.

4) The queen isn't born a queen. She's a female who has fought her way to the top.

5) A colony of naked mole rats can consist of 20 to 300 individuals. Their underground territory can be as large as six football fields.
(Source: smithsonianmag.com)


Will Sansom
Executive Director of Media Communications
The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio
(210) 567-2579

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