How naked mole rats may help us live longer and cancer-free

We’ve all heard the stories about a “fountain of youth” that grants eternal youth and longer life to whoever drinks or bathes in its waters. For centuries, explorers all over the world searched for this elusive fountain — to no avail.

Today’s scientific explorers are no longer hunting for a literal fountain of youth. But they are using sophisticated research methods to find ways to extend our lifespan and reduce our chances of disease.

Their latest discovery could be a giant step forward in this endeavor….

Naked mole rats and longevity

A team of researchers at the University of Rochester recently decided to take a closer look at the naked mole rat. These mouse-sized rodents live nearly 10 times longer than rodents of similar size and have shown resistance to age-related diseases like neurodegeneration, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and cancer.

Two University of Rochester professors, Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov, have spent decades researching the unique mechanisms that naked mole rats use to protect themselves against aging and disease.

They previously found that high molecular weight hyaluronic acid (HMW-HA) is one mechanism behind the rodent’s unusual resistance to cancer. Naked mole rats have 10 times more HMW-HA in their bodies than mice and humans. When the HMW-HA was removed from naked mole rat cells, the cells were more likely to form tumors.

So, of course, the Rochester researchers wanted to see if the positive effects of HMW-HA could be reproduced in other animals…

To do that, they genetically modified a mouse model to produce the naked mole rat version of hyaluronan synthase 2 gene. This gene is responsible for making the protein that produces HMW-HA. While all mammals have the hyaluronan synthase 2 gene, the naked mole rat version appears to have stronger gene expression.

Results showed the mice with the naked mole rat gene had better protection against spontaneous tumors and chemically induced skin cancer.

But not only that — their overall health was improved, and their median lifespan was 4.4 percent longer than that of regular mice!

In addition, as the mice with the naked mole rat gene aged, they maintained a healthier gut and had less inflammation in their bodies. People tend to have higher levels of inflammation as they get older.

Immune system regulation could be key

More research is needed to determine exactly why HMW-HA has these beneficial effects. But the researchers believe it is because HMW-HA can directly regulate the immune system.

“It took us 10 years from the discovery of HMW-HA in the naked mole rat to showing that HMW-HA improves health in mice,” Gorbunova says. “Our next goal is to transfer this benefit to humans.”

The researchers are excited by the new possibilities for exploring how HMW-HA could be used to lengthen lifespan and reduce inflammation-related diseases in humans. They believe they can do this either by slowing the degradation of HMW-HA or enhancing HMW-HA synthesis.

“We already have identified molecules that slow down hyaluronan degradation and are testing them in pre-clinical trials,” Seluanov says. “We hope that our findings will provide the first, but not the last, example of how longevity adaptations from a long-lived species can be adapted to benefit human longevity and health.”

Boosting your own hyaluronic acid supply

As promising as these studies are, it may be years before they result in therapeutic applications.

In the meantime, you may be wondering if there is any way to increase the amount of HMW-HA in your body.

Hyaluronic acid is already widely used in cosmetics to help firm and plump the skin, and as an injection to relieve the symptoms of osteoarthritis. There are oral hyaluronic acid supplements on the market, but unless they specifically say they contain high molecular weight hyaluronic acid, they may not have the same impact on your health.

But boosting the immune system and tamping down inflammation is not so elusive — and one common vitamin can do both.

C-reactive protein is a biomarker of inflammation in the body, and when researchers looked at data from almost 300,000 participants in the UK Biobank, they found a one-way relationship between low levels of vitamin D and high levels of C-reactive protein, expressed as inflammation.

Up to a third of Americans are believed to have insufficient or deficient levels of vitamin D.

According to Dr. Ang Zhou, the lead researcher of that study, “Boosting vitamin D in people with deficiencies may reduce chronic inflammation, helping them avoid a number of related diseases.” 

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1. Longevity gene from naked mole rats extends lifespan of mice — EurekAlert!

2. Increased hyaluronan by naked mole-rat Has2 improves healthspan in mice — Nature

3. Naked mole-rat — Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.