Pramod Dibble's Blog


Beating Ebola and Cancer with rats and bats - Evolution is the ultimate bio lab

15 Oct 2014 | by Pramod Dibble
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In the wake of the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded human history, scientists and doctors are scrambling to bring effective quarantine measures into place. After the current wave of this pretty terrifying disease is quelled (assuming it is), our focus will shift from containment and mitigation to a long-term cure. There are several species which lend themselves to study for the ultimate eradication of deadly terrors like cancer, Ebola, and other highly contagious, fatal diseases.

The naked mole rat was recently crowned “Mammal of the Year” by Nature for an incredible physical trait; no member of the species has ever been observed with cancer. This is due to the manner in which the naked rat genome programs for cell reproduction, and the mix of sugars their bodies produce. While they are just about the ugliest creatures imaginable (some scientists say that after working with them for a while, they start to seem pretty cute, an opinion I cannot begin to comprehend, photo here), their incredible resistance does begin to lay the trail of bread crumbs which may lead to humans beating cancer. The naked mole rat, also known as the desert puppy (puppy?!) is not the only animal with a natural resistance to cancer; two species of blind mole rat defend against cancer using a different mechanism. These three species, which originate in East Africa and the Middle East, provide some brilliant evolutionary clues to some of humanity’s greatest challenges.

                In addition to its astounding cancer resistance, the naked mole rat also has the highest life-span amongst rodents, up to 31 years (as compared to captive mice, which live only 2-3 years). The cause of this longevity is believed to be the ability of an individual to dramatically slow their metabolic rate, reducing the effects of oxidative stress (a cause of aging). In addition to this semi-hibernate state, their proteins display excellent stability in reproduction. Some headlines have lauded the “fountain of youth”, and while this is certainly hyperbole, it may lead to an understanding of how organisms slow the effects of aging and provide a framework for humans to replicate.

                Another organism which demonstrates a remarkable resistance to terrifying diseases is one that has long been associated with the spread of disease. Bats, perhaps second only to rats in this regard, have gotten this reputation from countless outbreaks of rabies, histoplasmosis (a potentially fatal disease primarily affecting the lungs), and several hemorrhagic fevers (the West African Marburg hemorrhagic fever has a mortality rate of over 90%). This opinion of bats as walking disease labs is based more in tradition and hearsay than it is in scientific observation, and needs further testing to corroborate. Having qualified that, bats’ genetic ability to detect and repair damaged DNA is much better than humans’. This is thought to be a result of a genetic mechanism to correct for that damage bats cause themselves while flying. This is substantiated by the low occurrence of tumors in bat species, which are probably identified and repaired before they become malignant.

                Bats require an elevated metabolism in order to be able to fly, which means their bodies are constantly in a heightened state. Anti-virus mechanisms in the human body only turn on when exposed to stimulus, while bats’ are always active possibly because of this metabolic requirement. This means that infections may never get the necessary foothold in a bat’s body to become fatal, and the bat becomes a carrier rather than a victim. While this sounds scary, it does provide an opportunity for humans to defeat diseases like Ebola and hemorrhagic fevers. By determining which traits bats are using to prevent fatalities from diseases that run like wildfire through the human body, scientists may be able to develop cures.

                By studying the solutions created by organisms over millions of years of evolutionary trial and error, scientists and doctors can find the clue which may lead to the ultimate eradication of the world’s most troubling diseases.

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