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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Bears and 'Betes

Published August 14, 2014 3:47 PM by Michael Jones

Lately, I find myself becoming a little jealous of bears. That’s right, bears – but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, it’d be great to hang out in creeks during the summer months, eating nothing but fresh salmon and berries all day, every day. I guess it’d also be pretty fantastic to be able to hibernate and sleep away the winter too, but a recent blog post from NPR discussed some surprising physiological advantages of bears -- specifically in terms of their body’s response to their diet.

According to NPR blog, “Grizzly bears can easily double their body fat in the months leading up to hibernation.” This kind of rapid weight gain in humans can lead to any number of dangerous conditions, but the post highlighted the development of insulin resistance leading to the occurrence of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance occurs when the body is forced to “produce more and more insulin to control blood sugar,” turning it into fat. Eventually, the body becomes resistant. Type 2 diabetes is the result of the pancreas shutting down insulin production as a result.

So, why doesn’t this happen to grizzlies? In the blog post, a research team from Amgen Inc., led by Kevin Corbit, PhD, discovered that the bears become more and less sensitive to insulin before, during and after periods of hibernation. Kara Manke, the NPR blogger, wrote, “assuming that, like humans, bears became less sensitive to insulin when they gained weight,” the researchers subjected each of the six bears being monitored to a relatively small (human) dose of insulin just before they were supposed to enter hibernation. The results were almost catastrophic.

As it turns out, unlike humans, “the bears were actually most sensitive to insulin just before hibernation, when they were at their largest.” So, the insulin nearly killed them due to overdose. The researchers then hypothesized on the changing nature of the bears’ insulin resistance. In the article, Corbit noted that figuring out what allows the bears to regulate their insulin sensitivity could also benefit people. The impact of this could have enormous potential for patients with type 2 diabetes.

“I think giving insulin is making people much sicker,” said Corbit in the NPR blog. “I’m hoping that whatever we find is going to ramp up the insulin sensitivity enough that we don’t have to supplement with insulin at all.”

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