Low Cancer Incidence in Naked Mole-Rats May Be Related to Their Inability to Express the Warburg Effect

Pedro Freire Jorge, Matthew L. Goodwin, Maurits H. Renes, Maarten W. Nijsten, Matthew Pamenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Metabolic flexibility in mammals enables stressed tissues to generate additional ATP by converting large amounts of glucose into lactic acid; however, this process can cause transient local or systemic acidosis. Certain mammals are adapted to extreme environments and are capable of enhanced metabolic flexibility as a specialized adaptation to challenging habitat niches. For example, naked mole-rats (NMRs) are a fossorial and hypoxia-tolerant mammal whose metabolic responses to environmental stressors markedly differ from most other mammals. When exposed to hypoxia, NMRs exhibit robust hypometabolism but develop minimal acidosis. Furthermore, and despite a very long lifespan relative to other rodents, NMRs have a remarkably low cancer incidence. Most advanced cancers in mammals display increased production of lactic acid from glucose, irrespective of oxygen availability. This hallmark of cancer is known as the Warburg effect (WE). Most malignancies acquire this metabolic phenotype during their somatic evolution, as the WE benefits tumor growth in several ways. We propose that the peculiar metabolism of the NMR makes development of the WE inherently difficult, which might contribute to the extraordinarily low cancer rate in NMRs. Such an adaptation of NMRs to their subterranean environment may have been facilitated by modified biochemical responses with a stronger inhibition of the production of CO2 and lactic acid by a decreased extracellular pH. Since this pH-inhibition could be deeply hard-wired in their metabolic make-up, it may be difficult for malignant cells in NMRs to acquire the WE-phenotype that facilitates cancer growth in other mammals. In the present commentary, we discuss this idea and propose experimental tests of our hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number859820
JournalFrontiers in Physiology
StatePublished - May 4 2022


  • Warburg effect
  • cancer metabolism
  • hypoxic metabolic response
  • hypoxic ventilatory response (HVR)
  • metabolic fuel switching
  • metabolism
  • naked mole-rat
  • thermoregulation


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