Thursday, November 17, 2011

Would You Trade Places With a Naked Mole Rat?

the naked mole rat has what could be the most extraordinary set of natural defenses ever found in a mammal. A mouse's life is short and terrible—even in the lab, with plenty of food and a steady thermostat, it lasts for just three or four years at the most. A naked mole rat shows no sign of aging until it's a quarter of a century old. Blind and plump, it skitters around in a hazmat suit of its own creation. _Slate
Naked mole rats appear impervious to radiation and carcinogens of all kinds. These naked mole rats are incredibly reluctant to get cancer. And that is not the half of it:
In 2004, Buffenstein and her students tried one of these shortcuts. They placed some mole rats in a gamma chamber and blasted their pale, pink bodies with ionizing rays. The animals were unimpressed. When I visited Buffenstein’s lab this past July, many were still alive, skittering through the plastic tubes of their basement habitat at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.

Four years later, Buffenstein...infected cells from a naked mole rat with a virus designed to corrupt their nuclei with the cancer-causing genes SV40 TAg and Ras. Then she slipped those cells into a live mouse, under the skin behind its ear. If you do the same using infected material from a mouse or a rat, or even a cow or a human, the transplant quickly grows into a deadly tumor, invading nearby fat and muscle tissue. But when Buffenstein and her colleagues used cells from a naked mole-rat, nothing happened.

...Earlier this year, one of Buffenstein's graduate students tried smearing the skin of half a dozen naked mole rats with a pair of vicious carcinogens: A synthetic compound called DMBA and an inflammatory agent known as TPA. When the same toxic pairing was applied to regular Black-6 lab mice as an experimental control, a cluster of tumors popped up within weeks. Every single mouse had cancer, and every single mouse died. The naked mole rats went on skittering through their tubes.

...Her latest assault involves pouring carcinogens down the mole rats' throats in a last-ditch effort to induce liver or mammary cancer. But that may not work, either. For years, Buffenstein's laboratory Rasputins have been irradiated, poisoned, and heated up; their cells dosed with every imaginable pollutant—chemotherapies, oxidative stressors, and heavy metals—with little or no effect. "You name it," the professor says, "we tried all the kinds of toxins that are out there, and the naked mole rat seems to be very resilient and resistant."

...The very thing that makes naked mole rats so interesting to Buffenstein—an astonishing vitality that lasts for decades—only makes her research more difficult. "You're caught between a rock and a hard place, because they live so long that your grandchildren have to finish the studies you start." Still, slow science may have rich rewards, and the decisions we make today—on whether to invest in new model organisms or build out the ones we already have—are sure to have profound effects on the (human) generations to come. _Slate
The above Slate article by Daniel Engber is an excellent example of good science writing. We learn about the things that make the naked mole rat intriguing as an object of study, then we learn why the biomedical funding establishment is so biased against funding studies using naked mole rats. The life of science is full of such conflicts, which can drive scientists out of the lab entirely if they cannot learn to deal with the frustrating politics and grant grubbing.

No human would want to trade places with a naked mole rat, even if it meant living 10 times longer -- and in better health -- than the average human. But we might want some of the naked rats resistance to cancer and degenerative change.

Human gerontologists are not trying to discover the path to immortality. They are not even trying to give humans the relative advantage in life span that the naked mole rat has over other rodents. What human scientists are trying to achieve is fairly modest -- they want to find a way to delay the signs of aging for roughly seven years beyond the average:
THE TARGET What we have in mind is not the unrealistic pursuit of dramatic increases in life expectancy, let alone the kind of biological immortality best left to science fiction novels.20 Rather, we envision a goal that is realistically achievable: a modest deceleration in the rate of aging sufficient to delay all aging-related diseases and disorders by about seven years.21 This target was chosen because the risk of death and most other negative attributes of aging tends to rise exponentially throughout the adult lifespan with a doubling time of approximately seven years.22 Such a delay would yield health and longevity benefits greater than what would be achieved with the elimination of cancer or heart disease.23 And we believe it can be achieved for generations now alive.

If we succeed in slowing aging by seven years, the age-specific risk of death, frailty, and disability will be reduced by approximately half at every age. People who reach the age of 50 in the future would have the health profile and disease risk of today’s 43-year-old; those aged 60 would resemble current 53-year-olds, and so on. Equally important, once achieved, this seven-year delay would yield equal health and longevity benefits for all subsequent generations, much the same way children born in most nations today benefit from the discovery and development of immunizations.

A growing chorus of scientists agrees that this objective is scientifically and technologically feasible. How quickly we see success depends in part on the priority and support devoted to the effort. Certainly such a great goal – to win back, on average, seven years of healthy life – requires and deserves significant resources in time, talent and treasury. But with the mammoth investment already committed in caring for the sick as they age, and the pursuit of ever-more expensive treatments and surgical procedures for existing fatal and disabling diseases, the pursuit of the Longevity Dividend would be modest by comparison. In fact, because a healthier, longer-lived population will add significant wealth to the economy, an investment in the Longevity Dividend would likely pay for itself. _"TheScientist"_via_NR
Can we learn anything toward that end, from the naked mole rat? Quite possibly. But we have to be willing to put in the time and expense to learn how to transfer the lessons from that exceptional rodent to the human species.



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