Cancer is not only a problem for humans, it’s rife within the animal kingdom. For many of Earth’s animals, the mortality rate is similar to our own species.
Dogs and cats can develop various forms, whilst Tasmanian devils often develop facial tumours, which they can pass to one another by touch. For sea dwelling animals, ocean pollution has increased the rate of cancer. The Beluga whales in Canada often contract intestinal cancer; 27% are affected, and it’s now the second most common cause of death for these majestic creatures.
Elephants somewhat buck the trend; only 5% will get cancer during their life, whereas 1 in 5 people now die from the disease. Bowhead whales can live for 200 years cancer-free, thanks to a genetic mutation that prevents their DNA from getting damaged.
The key to curing cancer may actually lie with an unlikely creature. The naked mole rat is an odd-looking animal, hairless, wrinkly, and sporting two enormous front teeth, but is capable of living for 30 years, a staggeringly long time considering its size. This is partly because they have a natural defence mechanism against cancer, after several decades of observation scientists have never seen cancer of any form develop within these animals.
Naked mole rate produce a molecule called hyaluronan, which is a thick, sugary substance found in the spaces between cells. Even if one of the animal’s cells mutated, which could start cancer in most species, the hyaluronan stop the cell from dividing further, preventing the spread of this mutation. Humans also produce this molecule, but it is a shorter version than the one found in naked mole rats.
Scientists are now looking for a way to regulate production of hyaluronan in humans, in the hope that they could use it as a form of cancer treatment or prevention in the coming decade.
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