The next advance in pain relief may come from that noblest of all tunnel dwellers, the naked mole rat, which has a special gift for tolerating acidic environments that would be inhospitable to cuter critters. The mole rats gift for living in less than ideal environments could translate to new pharmaceuticals that ease the pain of bumps and bruises and chronic pain conditions in humans, according to research published over the weekend in the online journal PLoS ONE.
Acidification is one of the factors that can cause lingering pain from injuries, and it’s not helped by traditional pain relievers like NSAIDs (ibuprofen, Aleve, etc.). Discovering the secret behind what makes mole rats so capable of putting up with acidic air could lead to similar compounds or techniques that could help in managing chronic pain in humans. That’s an increasingly urgent pharmaceutical need for patients, as new painkillers are surprisingly hard to come by — hence why opiates, for all their side effects and drawbacks, are still among the leading pain relief solutions for hospitalized patients.
Mole rats have to have a higher tolerance for acidic environments because of their densely packed burrows. Hundreds of mole rats living and breathing together can drive up the CO2 content of the underground atmosphere, causing spikes that render the surrounding air so acidic that it would be toxic to breathe. Except that naked mole rats don’t seem to mind so much, spending just as much time in the highly acidic areas of their burrows as they do in acid free environments, and leaving seemingly none worse for the wear.
That’s why researchers at the University of Chicago are working to unravel the naked mole rats’ resistance to acid air — and the connection that resistance might have to the animals’ imperviousness to some kinds of pain. That’s not the only medical mystery about the mole rat, which are as healthy as they are unpleasant to look at. The animals can thrive in oxygen depleted areas, don’t seem to fall victim to any types of cancer, and can live up to ten times longer than similar sized creatures.
Of course, they also spend most of those lives in underground burrows and look like something that crawled out of your worst fever dream, but hey, there are trade-offs for pretty much everything in life, right?
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