Interesting cancer resistance in naked mole rats

There’s a ridiculous amount of hype in science today, and in an area as sexy as cancer research it is perhaps even worse. In writing this post, I am mindful of the “sharks don’t get cancer” trope that’s been used irresponsibly to sell shark cartilage as snake oil, very often to people who are in a desperate situation. Consider that a disclaimer.

There is, reportedly, a very low incidence of cancerous tumors in naked mole rats. Statements like “there has never been a tumor found in a naked mole rat” may be misleading unless they also explain to us just who is looking for tumors in naked mole rats, how long they’ve been doing so, how hard they’re looking, who’s paying for it, and why. Still, I think this paragraph is interesting:

The findings, presented in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the mole rat’s cells express a gene called p16 that makes the cells “claustrophobic,” stopping the cells’ proliferation when too many of them crowd together, cutting off runaway growth before it can start. The effect of p16 is so pronounced that when researchers mutated the cells to induce a tumor, the cells’ growth barely changed, whereas regular mouse cells became fully cancerous.

Of course, there’s all kinds of reasons why it might work for naked mole rats and not for people, but the idea that a mechanism as simple as cellular “claustrophobia” might go so far to eliminating tumors is pretty interesting. Here’s the original abstract at PNAS.


I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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