Researchers were able to discover a chemical that made naked mole rats resistant to cancer. The discovery could pave the way for new cancer treatments for humans.

Naked mole rats, despite their appearance, are extraordinary creatures as they have a relatively long lifespan of 30 year, live in environments that other animals deem toxic and cannot feel pain. Naked mole rats have never been observed to develop cancer, despite living for up to 30 years, and researchers from the University of Rochester were able to discover the source of the rodent’s natural resistance.

Led by Andrei Seluanov and Vera Gorbunova, researchers discovered naked mole rat tissue contains a high concentration of high molecular weight hyaluronan, or HMW-HA, and their study was published in the journal Nature. HMW-HA, described as a “gooey substance,” became the focus of researchers as it proved problematic in the lab as it would block up vacuum pumps, according to the University of Rochester press release. This type of substance was not found in other cultures developed around human or other rodent tissue.

HMW-HA is secreted by the rodent’s fibroblasts, cells that synthesize the structural elements of tissue, collagen and the extracellular matrix. The HA produced by naked mole rates are more than five times the size of HA produced by humans or mice. HA also aids in the wound healing process.

After identifying HMW-HA as the culprit, the researchers examined its role in the cancer resistance of naked mole rats. Removing HMW-HA from naked mole rat tissue cultures made the tissue susceptible to tumor growth. The researchers were also able to identify the specific gene hyaluronan synthase 2, or HAS2, responsible for the development of HMW-HA.

HMW-HA is recycled slowly by naked mole rats, which allows for the chemical to build up in naked mole rat tissue. The reason for the slow recycling is due to the reduced activity of the enzyme that breaks down HA, HYAL2.

Researchers want to test the ability of HMW-HA to resistant cancer growth by introducing the chemical to mice. If those tests are successful, human testing could be next. HMW-HA is used in other applications for human use, which means, theoretically, it could be applied toward cancer treatments.

“It's used in anti-wrinkle injections and to relieve pain from arthritis in knee joints, without any adverse effects. Our hope is that it can also induce an anti-cancer response,” Seluanov said. The researchers also remarked that, instead of studying cancer in animals that are prone to the disease, naked mole rats, and other cancer-resistant animals, could lead to new cancer treatment developments.

In the abstract, the researchers conclude, “We speculate that naked mole rats have evolved a higher concentration of HA in the skin to provide skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels. This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity to this species.”