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Hibernating bears may hold the secret to curing diabetes

By feeding honey water to bears, researchers have discovered the potential genetic key to their insulin control. This advance could lead to a remedial treatment for a disease that affects almost ten per cent of the world’s adult population.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why humans aren’t able to consume tens of thousands of calories a day to bulk up before taking a very long nap, you’re not alone.

It’s a phenomenon that’s had scientists scratching their heads for decades, long-questioning why the same behaviour doesn’t cause diabetes in bears the way it would us if we were to rapidly gain a lot of weight then suddenly stop moving for months on end.

This week, however, researchers at Washington State University made a breakthrough.

By feeding honey water to the drowsy mammals, they discovered the potential key to their insulin control. The results could ultimately lead to a remedial treatment for a disease that affects almost ten per cent of the world’s adult population and can cause heart attacks, strokes, and blindness.

‘This is progress toward getting a better understanding of what’s happening at the genetic level and identifying specific molecules that are controlling insulin resistance in bears,’ explains Blair Perry, the study’s co-first author and a WSU post-doctoral researcher.

Hibernation in Bears - Katmai National Park & Preserve (U.S. National Park Service) - Brooks Camp Bear Blog

‘There’s inherent value to studying the diversity of life around us and all of these unique and strange adaptations that have arisen.’

Insulin is a hormone found in most warm-blooded creatures that regulates the body’s blood sugar levels by telling the liver, muscle, and fat cells to absorb this source of energy.

If a significant amount of glucose enters the bloodstream, the cells stop responding over time and become resistant to insulin. This is the main trigger for the metabolic disorder in humans.

Yet bears – rather mysteriously – can turn their insulin resistance on and off like a switch.

Pretty handy if you’re preparing to sleep through the entirety of winter, eh?

To figure out the science behind this impressive skill, the team drew blood serum and collected fat tissue from six captive grizzlies (aged between five and thirteen years) at the WSU Bear Center.

This experiment allowed them to uncover a secret: that bears have eight notable proteins in their bodies working either independently or together to regulate insulin during hibernation.

And because we share most of our genes with these mammals, understanding the role of these proteins could shine a light on insulin resistance and perhaps one day – even result in a cure for diabetes.

‘There seem to be eight proteins that are working either independently or together to modulate the insulin sensitivity and resistance that’s seen in hibernating bears,’ says Joanna Kelley, a WSU evolutionary geneticist and corresponding author of the study.

‘All of these eight proteins have human homologues. They’re not unique to bears. The same genes are in humans, so that means maybe there’s a direct opportunity for translation.’

 

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