Rats, viewed the world over as disease-ridden pests, consistently get a bad rap when it comes to health. But a groundbreaking experiment may be about to shake up the way the public views rodents – as they could help us live longer.
Scientists have successfully transferred what is being described as the “longevity” gene from naked mole rats into common mice, for the first time.
On Wednesday, a team of scientists helmed by biologist Vera Gorbunova said they had managed to isolate and export the gene to another species.
They achieved this by inserting the acid synthase 2 gene from the naked mole-rat into 90 ordinary mice, creating supermice that display stronger resistance to cancer and live longer.
In results published in the peer-reviewed Nature journal, the genetically modified mice lived 4.4 per cent longer on average, with a 12 per cent increase in maximum life span, compared to mice who did not receive the gene.
In the unaltered mice, the incidence of cancer reached 83 per cent in old age, compared to 49 per cent in the genetically modified mice.
Mole rats live underground in countries clustered in the Horn of Africa. They can live up to 40 years without getting cancer and diseases related to ageing such as arthritis and neurodegenerative conditions, and their life span is almost ten times longer than that of a common mouse.
The mole-rat’s remarkable resistance to tumours was discovered 10 years ago, when scientists found its cells produce hyaluronic acid, a chemical popular in skincare, which is more than five times more potent than that produced by humans or mice.
The “fountain of youth” substance, abundant high-molecular-mass hyaluronic acid, is caused by the presence of the acid synthase 2 gene, which was inserted into the mice during the experiment.
“This is the first time that a mechanism of this type has been successfully exported,” said Ms Gorbunova.
She is already looking for strategies to safely increase the presence of it in humans. “Transgenesis could be done, administering the [naked mole-rat] genes into adult human tissues using vectors [viruses, for example] or nanoparticles,” she told Spanish newspaper El Pais.
“The best option, of course, would be to use small molecules to avoid the degradation of the high-molecular-mass hyaluronan.”
Jorge Azpurua researched breast cancer treatment at George Washington University, and a decade ago studied the anticancer properties of HA in the naked mole rats in Gorbunova’s laboratory. “The new results are very interesting,” he told the paper.
“The question 10 years ago was whether high-molecular-mass hyaluronan was enough to reduce the risk of cancer, or whether there were multiple molecular mechanisms involved. From what I see in this work, it is enough”.
However, the authors of the study have stressed the breakthrough does not point to a quick fix to eternal youth.
High-molecular-mass hyaluronan is also associated with inflammation and the growth of tumours in people, and scientists have said it must be remembered the study was carried out on mice, not people.
“We have to be prudent, because the molecular biology of rodents, in general, is quite different from that of human beings,” Mr Azapura said.
“The most important thing, in my opinion, would be to try to understand the molecular mechanism through which hyaluronic acid reduces the incidence of cancer,” he added.