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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The naked mole rat might not be known for its good looks, but this tiny rodent has turned into a cash cow for researchers.

A five-year, $9.5 million federal grant has been awarded to University of Rochester biology professor Vera Gorbunova to head up a project studying why this creature has such longevity — an average life span of 32 years.

"We hope to come out with strategies to delay human aging," said Gorbunova, who has been on the UR faculty since 2004.

She and her husband, Andrei Seluanov, who is an assistant professor of biology at UR, are already heading up a team that discovered a chemical that has made naked mole rats cancer-free.

The new grant, announced Wednesday, will also involve faculty from Harvard University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Researchers at the three sites will focus on 18 different species of rodents and try to understand why they have different life spans — ranging from 3 years for mice to 32 years for the naked mole rat.

The $9.5 million research grant was awarded in a competitive process by the Department of Health and Human Service's National Institute on Aging.

Researchers will focus on rodents because they are genetically similar to humans, but have different life spans.

"UR will be at the center of the whole effort," Gorbunova said. "We will maintain the bank of tissues and cells from all the rodents."

The research will be conducted by five groups of professors and researchers, with Gorbunova and Seluanov heading up the two teams at UR. Each group is expected to have five to 10 researchers.

Gorbunova will study which enzymes most efficiently the repair damaged DNA — molecules that contain genetic information. Failure to repair DNA can lead to cancer.

In their study about naked mole rats and cancer, published last year in Nature, a prestigious British scientific journal, the UR team that Gorbunova and Seluanov headed up found that naked mole rats are protected from cancer because their tissues are rich in high molecular weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA).

Observations of naked mole rat colonies over a number of years did not detect a single incidence of cancer. Researchers also identified a gene that makes HMW-HA.

Last December, the naked mole rat was named Vertebrate of the Year by the prestigious Science Magazine, which acknowledged that these creatures "will never win a beauty contest," but "may hold a lesson or two for humans," in how to prevent cancer.

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