[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]
Understanding all the genes and molecules involved in human disease is quite a challenge. That’s why scientists study model organisms, like flies and worms and mice, that are made of the same stuff we are. Now scientists in Illinois and Israel have found a strange new model that they say mimics the molecular behavior of human cancers: the naked mole rat.
These odd little creatures live in subterranean tunnels where air is at a premium. So the animals have evolved a strategy for surviving when oxygen is scarce. Well, the same is true of cancers. In a rapidly growing tumor, the cells in the center are often oxygen-deprived, because blood vessels don’t reach all the way inside.
And the scientists are finding that mole rats and tumor cells use similar mechanisms to make the most of the little oxygen they have. In particular, the researchers have so far identified three genes that respond to plummeting oxygen levels. The genes’ activity patterns are the same in mole rats and in cancer cells. Understanding how these genes work could suggest new ways of choking the life out of tumors, by turning off their ability to live like mole rats. Well, malignant mole rats.