Naked Ambition (Scientific American)
Native to the Horn of Africa, this small rodent (Heterocephalus glaber) is neither a mole nor a rat; it is actually more closely related to porcupines and guinea pigs. The animal’s pale-pink, wrinkled skin is nearly hairless, the better to slip through those narrow burrows. But there is yet another more compelling fact: in all the thousands of naked mole rats that have lived and died in research labs and zoos over the past several decades, not a single instance of spontaneous cancer has been recorded1.
Researchers have found it tough to induce cancer in naked mole rats. Working in culture, they have infected cells from the creatures with a genetically engineered virus that contains a pair of oncogenes, or cancer-promoting genes, that reliably turns mouse cells malignant2,3. “This common oncogenic cocktail had no effect on the naked-mole-rat cells,” says Rochelle Buffenstein, a physiologist at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and a pioneer of naked-mole-rat research. “They did not become tumorigenic, they didn’t rapidly proliferate, they didn’t invade tissues.”