Do naked mole rats hold secret to longevity?

A naked mole rat
Wikimedia Commons
naked mole rat, longevity
Naked mole rat
Wikimedia Commons

(CBS) Naked mole rats might not be able to speak, but new research suggests they might have a lot to say about human longevity.

The ugly buck-toothed creature outlives every other rodent by decades, is exceptionally resistant to cancer, can't feel pain, and thrives even underground in darkness with low oxygen levels and high levels of carbon dioxide.

What explains the rats amazing hardiness? To find out, an international team of researchers sequenced the genome of naked mole rats.

For the study - published in the Oct. 12 issue of Nature - scientists were hopeful the mole rat's ability to flourish in these conditions could lead to human research breakthroughs on pain, cancer, and longevity research.

The scientists found the incredible rat has genes that suppress tumors, and that might be the key to its cancer-resistance. They also found its skin fibers lack proteins that make the animal impervious to certain kinds of pain. When scientists looked at naked mole rats' brains, they found few genetic differences between that of a newborn and 20-year-old mole rat - which is unusual compared to human brains. That might unlock the secrets of aging, and how to prevent diseases like Alzheimer's.

"It's a treasure trove for cancer and Alzheimer's research," Dr. Rochelle Buffenstein, a University of Texas Health Science Center researcher in San Antonio who participated in the project, told the Washington Post. "It's got so much information that we can now go and mine to test all kinds of theories about aging and disease."

Scientists think their discoveries can lead to a lot more mole rat research in the future, much like how researchers look at mice and rats to test human drugs and diseases.

"The NMR genome will play an important role in functional studies of NMR, which also will provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring some of the most challenging questions in biology and medicine," study author Dr. Xiaodong Fang, a researcher at the Beijing Genomics Institute, said in a written statement. "We believe that NMR will become a new model in biological and biomedical research in the near future."

National Geographic has more on naked mole rats.