PictureBrandon Vick/University of Rochester
In the fight against cancer, many researchers are forced to think outside the box in order to battle this nasty foe.

Cancer is brutal and unpredictable, so scientists often explore seemingly wild ideas in order to level the playing field.

This week, we’ve seen encouraging cancer-fighting stories come from very unlikely sources: naked mole rats, and outer space.

Researchers at the University of Rochester have been analyzing the naked mole rat, an East African critter that has fascinated scientists for decades because it simply does not get cancer – or, at the very least, no scientist has ever observed a cancerous naked mole rat.

In an interview with ABCNews.com, biology professor Vera Gorbunova said that her students were “analyzing mole rat fibroblasts, connective tissue cells that secrete collagen protein,” when they discovered that the liquid containing the fibroblasts became uncommonly syrupy after a few days. This “goo” turned out to be “long hyaluronan molecules [that] told cells when to stop reproducing.” 

This goo, in fact, prevented the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells. It prevented cancer. More research is needed to see if this extract could work for humans, but these initial findings, published in the science journal Nature, are fascinating.

“We were very lucky in many ways,” Dr. Gorbunova said. “In my experience, the most important findings are actually when you work with something but things don’t go exactly as planned.

“We realized, wow, this goo is important.”

PictureDr. Jeanne Becker/Nasa Spinoff

As for outer space, the lack of gravity might provide an ideal environment for cellular analysis.

According to Popular Science, “biologists have found that microgravity research and other space-based experiments provide greater insight into abnormal cell behavior.

In Earth-bound labs, cells flatten out and can’t “fully mimic the three-dimensional architecture shaped by proteins and carbohydrates of a working human organ.” But in space, scientists might be able to get a much more accurate view of these cells.

“So many things change in 3-D, it’s mind-blowing — when you look at the function of the cell, how they present their proteins, how they activate genes, how they interact with other cells,” said Jeanne Becker, PhD, a cell biologist at Nano3D Biosciences in Houston and principal investigator for the CBOSS-1-Ovarian study. “The variable that you are most looking at here is gravity, and you can’t really take away gravity on Earth. You have to go where gravity is reduced.”

• Naked Mole Rats Have Cancer-Proof ‘Goo’ (ABCNews.com, June 20, 2013)
• The Cure For Cancer Could Be Found In Space (Popular Science, June 25, 2013)



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