Matt Kaeberlein, a scientist at University of Washington who studies aging in worms, says, “It’s been a mystery for a long time as to why these naked mole rats are so much longer lived than mice.” He says that the current study provides strong evidence that “one of the things that potentially underlies the extreme difference in life span in these animals” is their ability to maintain the health of proteins in cells.
Proteins are constantly unfolding and refolding, and can lose their proper shape or get damaged. Over time, the body loses the ability to deal with defective or improperly folded proteins, and they can accumulate and become toxic to cells. Indeed, the unhealthy aggregation of proteins in brain cells has also been implicated in several diseases of aging, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This latest study, says Kaeberlein, fits well with research in other species suggesting that quality control of proteins is a key part of healthy aging.
“Our first plan is to try and identify the proteins that protect and are protected in naked mole rats,” says Buffenstein. It may be that only certain proteins are critical for keeping cells healthy; for instance, naked mole rats may have differences in a class of proteins called chaperones, which help stabilize proteins by keeping them properly folded. The researchers believe that once these targets have been identified, it may be possible to mimic the protective strategies of naked mole rats in order to prevent aging-related disease in humans.