When a group of researchers at the University of Rochester in New York tried growing skin cells from naked mole rats in lab flasks, they noticed that the fluid the cells were growing in became thick and syrupy. After some investigation, they discovered that the cells, like other cells of mammalian connective tissue, were secreting a sugar called hyaluronan, except the naked mole version was five times bigger. Andrei Seluanov, who led the study, believes that larger hyaluronan can trap potential cancer cells and prevent them from growing into tumors. Writes Ed Yong for Not Exactly Rocket Science:
But it also allows cells to stop each other from growing if they become too crowded. This is called ‘contact inhibition’—it’s why healthy cells form a flat layer if they’re grown in a dish but cancerous ones pile on top of each other.
Based on an earlier study, Seluanov’s team suspected that naked mole rat cells are protected against cancer because they’re especially sensitive to contact inhibition. Now, they’ve shown that large hyaluronan is responsible. The rodents’ cells are very receptive to the sugar; as they get close, hyaluronan sticks to their surface and triggers a genetic programme that stops them from growing.
The team switched on cancer genes in naked mole rat cells and transplanted them into mice. No cancer. But when they reduced the amount of hyaluronan created by the naked mole rat cells in the mice, tumors formed.