World’s Ugliest Animal Provides Cancer Clues

Toronto – A bucktoothed, long-living, cancer-proof rodent may hold the secret to a new strategy for cancer prevention. The naked mole rat’s exceptional resistance to cancer may be attributed to a large amount of a jelly-like substance called hyaluronan in its body. It’s the focus of a new study funded by the Canadian Cancer Society.

Dr Barbara Triggs-Raine, a biochemist at the University of Manitoba, leads one of only 2 labs in the world that study enzymes that break down hyaluronan. Her new study will evaluate the effect of these enzymes (called hyaluronidase 2, or HYAL2) on hyaluronan.

Scientists recently discovered that the cancer-proof naked mole rat’s tissues are rich in hyaluronan. Experiments showed that when the substance is removed from naked mole rat cells, they become susceptible to cancer, suggesting the protective role of hyaluronan.

Hyaluronan is produced by cells and is found in all animals. It helps to lubricate joints and is an essential component in skin and cartilage. It is also a common ingredient in skin-care products and is used in some cosmetic procedures, such as wrinkle repair. It causes the naked mole rat’s baggy skin, a physical characteristic it shares with the better-known baggy-faced Shar-Pei dog, which also carries large amounts of hyaluronan in the folds of its skin.

Dr Triggs-Raine’s lab team will investigate whether a decreased quantity of HYAL2 increases hyaluronan and resists cancer. They will remove HYAL2 and observe the effect on skin cancer resistance in tissue samples. If the study is successful, HYAL2 could become a target for cancer prevention. By identifying ways to interfere with HYAL2’s function, it might be possible to prevent cancer in high-risk situations and prevent the spread of cancer by increasing the amount of hyaluronan between cells.

This study is one of 51 new Innovation Grants, totalling almost $10 million, recently announced by the Society. The program supports unconventional but very promising cancer research ideas.

This is Dr Triggs-Raine’s first cancer study. She was prompted to apply her extensive knowledge of HYAL2 to cancer research by reports about the naked mole rat discovery.

“The Innovation Grants give me the perfect opportunity to pursue this study and, for this project, shift my expertise to focus on cancer,” says Dr Triggs-Raine. “Although we’re still in the early stages, the potential for a new avenue for cancer prevention is very exciting.”

“The fight against cancer comes in many forms. In this case, surprisingly, it’s from a unique little rodent,” says Dr Siân Bevan, Director of Research for the Canadian Cancer Society. “This is one of the reasons why innovation in cancer research is important. It is those unique, creative and unexpected ideas that will have the most impact against cancer.”

(Canadian Cancer Society)