An often-overlooked rodent could hold the key to curing cancer.

He fights crime, saves the world, and still has time to indulge in a plate of nachos. He is one of the most faithful, yet smallest sidekicks of all time. He is “Rufus the Naked Mole-Rat,” Ron Stoppable’s rodent best friend. Rufus is a member of “Team Possible” from the hit Disney children’s television series Kim Possible. The rodent accompanies his owner Ron along with Ron’s best friend and later girlfriend, Kim Possible. Even though Ron and Kim are only teenagers, “Team Possible” fights evil villains around the world – all while having time to make it to the school football game. As fictional as the television show Kim Possible is, Rufus, the animal sidekick that provides comic relief, might actually be a superhero in the battle against cancer.

The Spread of Cancer

Cancer became a more prevalent disease as people began to live longer. Cancer treatments can, at times, seem worse than the disease itself. Chemotherapy and radiation successfully kill quickly dividing cells, but cannot distinguish between cancer cells and healthy cells. Side effects include hair loss, intense pain, and weakness. Scientists are desperately trying to find a cure for this deadly disease, and exploring solutions many of us would never dream of in their quest.

naked mole-rats

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Naked Mole-Rats and Cancer

Now, what does a Disney cartoon have to do with such a dreadful disease? The tie is the adorable Mexican-food loving pet, Rufus. As they often point out on the program, Rufus is a naked mole-rat. Along with sharks, naked mole-rats are one of the few animals that are largely immune to cancer. Already, scientists are looking at the differences between human and naked mole-rat DNA to find ways the rodents can benefit the human race.

Naked mole rats and humans are both mammals, which means they have much of the same genetic makeup in common. Humans share over 95% of their genes with a banana. Imagine how much genetic overlap humans have with an animal in the same genus! Despite sharing a lot, there are still differences in the gene alphabet that allow humans to get the disease while the rodents do not.

Why Naked Mole-Rats are Unique

Naked mole-rats are a unique type of animal. They are the ugly duckling of the rodent world. They have a lifespan exceeding 30 years, are not affected by the strength of acids and spice of chili peppers, are one of the only two types of mammals that live in a structured hierarchal colony, do not have control over their own body temperature, and are almost completely immune to tumors. Many scientists have taken note of these peculiarities and are trying to harvest them in a way to benefit humans. For example, some researchers are looking into how the naked mole-rat’s resistance to pain from acids could help in chronic pain relief.

naked mole-rats

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

The bigger interest in naked mole-rats is not for pain relief, however, but for cancer prevention. It fascinates many people that the animal is practically immune to cancer, a disease that is affecting more and more people each year. Different researchers have come to the same conclusion – the immunity stems from a sugar called high-molecular-mass Hylauronan(HMM-HA). It exists in all animals to lubricate joints, but the Hylauronan molecules in naked mole-rats are five times bigger than the molecules in rats, mice, and even humans! This is also what gives the naked mole-rats their infamous wrinkly and baggy skin and allows them to squeeze through underground tunnels to get to their subterranean colonies. It has been proposed that the Hylauronan molecules in naked mole-rats surround cells and prevent tumor cells from excessively multiplying, stopping future cancers in their tracks.

Trying to harvest the naked-mole rat Hylauronan for humans could have extraordinary effects. It is already used in lotions and anti-wrinkle treatments without any negative side effects, so the future is hopeful. Many scientists predict it will be a while for the sugar to be used as a tool in the battle against cancer, but it’s easy to imagine the benefits it could have. Naked mole-rats, often overlooked as nothing more than a relative to the other dreaded rodents, could help save the world from cancer. Maybe Disney was on to something when they decided to make Rufus a member of “Team Possible.”

Want to learn more about where we stand in the fight against cancer? Check out these stories about the role oncologists play and a teenager who developed a test to detect pancreatic cancer.

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