Let’s forget that they look like a wrinkled finger with teeth. Put aside their inability to feel pain in their skin, their tolerance for chokingly low oxygen levels, or their poor temperature control. Don’t even think about how they live in ant-like colonies, complete with queens and workers. Also ignore their ability to live for more than 30 years—an exceptional lifespan for a rodent of their size.
Because the most important thing that you need to know is that the naked mole rat can’t get cancer.
A hairless rodent with a tiny, pig-like snout and nubby ears, lives in underground colonies of tunnels and nests that can stretch for miles and is native to East Africa. As many as 300 of the rodents work together in these burrows, united around a single queen, who is the only member of the colony who can reproduce. It's a hard life, with little food and even less water.
They work hard to get food in the desert and often have to work together to dig colonies with their teeth. Now, because there are so many of them huddled together, it gives rise to skin irritation and they are likely prone to a condition called thermal hyperalgesia. Humans have the same condition, which we generally call heat sensitivity. However, over the course of their evolution, nature has almost dimmed their heat receptor nerves so that the little guys can carry on with their work without any discomfort, so to say.
Similarly, through a research at the University of Rochester it was discovered that the cells of a naked mole rat secreted a sugar called Hyaluronan, which is common in the skin, cartilage and other connective tissues of mammals. The naked mole rat produces an exceptionally large version of the sugar that’s over five times bigger than ours. And it has a lot of it. Because there are so many of them working together at the same time and secrete such large amounts of this sugar-like substance, their cells have become very receptive to it; as they get closer, Hyaluronan sticks to their surface and triggers a genetic programme that stops the cells from growing, thereby reducing or completely negating the possibility of a cancerous tissue.
Efforts are now being made to harness these two evolutionary traits for clinical purposes for humans.
Title image: Vox