The Arctic lemming found on NASA’s base in Devon Island (in Canada) may look ordinary, but scientists just discovered that it contains a “gloop” that could lead to breakthrough medicines for treating cancers.
Dicrostonyx torquatus, or as they are more commonly called, Artic lemming, are a species of rodents that live mostly in treeless areas of Northern Canada and in Alaska. They are very small mouse-like animals that live in solitude and change the color of their fur, between brown and white, depending on whether it’s summer or winter.
Last week, scientists from University of Toronto during a ground-breaking study took samples of Artic lemmings located on the Devon Island, and after several lab tests discovered that the “gloop” identified in the animal may actually contain a breakthrough key for curing cancer. They announced that this chemical, called high-molecular-mass hyaluronan (HMM-HA) previously found in some naked mole rats, although in lesser amounts, is a lubricant secreted by this animal that helped it show an unusually high resistance to cancerous cells that were injected into its body during the lab tests. “The Arctic lemmings found on the Devon Island secrete extremely high-molecular-mass hyaluronan (HA) which makes the growth of cancerous cells in their bodies almost impossible,” Dr. Chris Anderson, a scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada said last week.
Dr. Chris further explained that the HMM-HA found in these animals is over five times larger than those found in humans. In addition, the cells of the Artic Lemming tested on the Devon Island are more sensitive to HA signaling, as they have a higher affinity to HA compared with mouse or human cells. This mechanism, Dr. Chris shares, “is responsible for the cancer resistance of these tested animals and can also be co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity in humans.”
It seems, therefore, that the ability of HMM-HA to confer cancer resistance was a happy evolutionary accident. And one day, it may be possible to engineer the ability to produce HMM-MA in human tissues – hopefully without the side effect, as Dr. Chris says, of making us all end up changing our skins, like the Artic lemming, with the changing seasons.
That we can solve medical mysteries by understudying human cells is not surprising; yet finding that an animal so small, and so weird, as the Artic lemming could one day lead to a cure for cancer seems utterly bizarre.
However, this creature has gained the respect of an increasing number of scientists, and already, the WHO announced that it is partnering with the Laboratory of Medicine and Pathology (LMP) faculty of the University of Toronto in investigating how to harness the “powers” of this mystery animal in manufacturing drugs that could produce HMM-MA in humans, thereby making humans immune to cancerous cells too.
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