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And finally, researchers have deciphered the genome sequence of the blind mole rat - an unusual underground creature that lives for more than 20 years and appears to be resistant to cancer. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers from an international team encompassing the UK, Israel, China, the US and Denmark believe they have found the genetic signatures revealing the secret of their tumour resistance.
Rather than damaged and faulty cells committing suicide through a process called apoptosis, as they do in most mammals, the blind mole rat’s immune system directly attacks cancerous cells and destroys them through a process called necrosis. The researchers found that genes involved in this immune defence have been copied and favoured in the mole rat genome over evolutionary time.
It also looks like one of the key players in protecting the body from cancer through apoptosis - a gene called p53, or the so-called “Guardian of the Genome” - is changed in the blind mole rats as part of their adaptation to life in low oxygen. So there seems to be a trade-off between losing the p53 defence, but stepping up an alternative protection mechanism.
The researchers plan to continue probing the blind mole rat’s genome to find more secrets that could help shed light on many human diseases, including cancer.