Thanks largely to the work of two University of Rochester biologists, Science Magazine, one of the world's leading journals on scientific research and news, has bestowed the honor on the naked mole rats, saying the long-living, subterranean rodents"may hold a lesson or two for humans" when it comes to warding off cancer.
The rodents, which are native to East Africa and whose scientific name is Heterocephalus glaber, can live as long as 30 years, stay healthy right up to the end, and never get cancer.
In announcing its selection of the Vertebrate of the Year, Science cited research papers published this year by Rochester biologists Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov on their investigation of the mole rat's biology and its unique ability to resist cancer.
"The Vertebrate of the Year announcement is ultimately recognition that our work using unconventional animal models is on the same level as other top scientific developments in cancer research," Gorbunova said. "And it shows that the research dollars invested by the National Institutes of Health is money well-spent."
Gorbunova and Seluanov have said they hope their work with the less-than-lovely mole rats will one day lead to clinical treatments for preventing or controlling cancer in humans, although they caution any medical solution is a long way off.