They may not win many beauty contests, but naked mole rats have long caught the eyes of scientists working to find the cure to cancer. These strange, bald rodents are the only animals in the world that appear to be completely immune to the disease. Now researchers at the University of Rochester think they may have unlocked their secret.

The findings, which were published recently in an issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bring optimism that the cure to cancer may not be far off. Even more encouraging, scientists traced the naked mole rats' ability to stay tumorless to the operation of a single gene.

Dubbed 'p16', the gene works by making cells "claustrophobic", essentially keeping them from replicating when too many crowd together. Since cancer is caused by runaway cell growth, the gene acts as a fail-safe mechanism, preventing cell proliferation from cascading out of control.

"It's very early to speculate about the implications, but if the effect of p16 can be simulated in humans, we might have a way to halt cancer before it starts," said University of Rochester researchers Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov.

The exciting discovery comes at the end of an unusual three-year journey for Gorbunova and Seluanov, who have been investigating rodents of all kinds from around the world to see how they each deal with cancer differently.

It turns out that naked mole rats are particularly unusual when put in a context with most other small-bodied mammals. Aside from their hairless bodies and the fact that they form communities that consist of queens and workers more reminiscent of bees or ants than rodents, they also live longer — a lot longer. Some naked mole rats have been known to live more than 30 years.

Of course, the fact that they're resistant to cancer helps to explain how they can live so long. But that longer lifespan means that there's even more time for cells to grow cancerous, a fact which made the mystery as to how the depilated rodents remain cancer-free all the more intriguing.

Now that the mystery is solved, it almost seems apt: It may be that the key to curing cancer for the hairless ape rests in understanding the tiny, bizarre biology of the hairless rat.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Scientists discover how naked mole rats stay cancer-free
Naked mole rats are the only known cancerless animals in the world. Now scientists know why, and it may be the key to the cure.