Could grizzly bears hold a key to diabetes treatment?

Diabetes affects approximately 26 million people in the United States, and the hunt is on for ways to combat this growing public health crisis. Now,…
Could grizzly bears hold a key to diabetes treatment?

A grizzly bear waits to be fed at The Wild Animal Sanctuary on October 20, 2011 in Keenesburg, Colorado. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Diabetes affects approximately 26 million people in the United States, and the hunt is on for ways to combat this growing public health crisis. Now, researchers have turned to Mother Nature in hopes they might find some answers, and they may have found some–by looking at grizzly bears.

According to research published in the journal Cell Metabolism, grizzly bears may provide a novel approach to managing diabetes by “curing” themselves of the condition during the hibernation phase. Experts say the bears are obese but not diabetic in the fall, become diabetic only weeks later in hibernation, and then somehow become “cured” of diabetes when they wake up in the spring. It all seems to have something to do with control of the protein PTEN.

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“This is in contrast to the common notion that obesity leads to diabetes in humans,”  Dr. Kevin Corbit explained in a news release. “Our results clearly and convincingly add to an emerging paradigm where diabetes and obesity — in contrast to the prevailing notion that the two always go hand-in-hand — may exist naturally on opposite ends of the metabolic spectrum.

“While care must be taken in extrapolating preclinical findings to the care of particular patients, we believe that these and other data do support a more comprehensive and perhaps holistic approach to caring for patients with diabetes and/or obesity.”

How do grizzly bears cure themselves of diabetes? Corbit and his team say the bears are able to control how sensitive their fat cells are to insulin by regulating the protein PTEN. Unlike humans, grizzly bears are the most sensitive to insulin when they are at their heaviest; humans at the heaviest do not respond to insulin, and that increased insulin prevents the breakdown of fat cells, in turn increasing insulin resistance.

The grizzly bears, by keeping their insulin sensitivity high while they are overweight, allow their cells to continue to store sugar that will be needed for energy during hibernation.

“When I was thinking about things that are quite fat, one of the first things I thought of was bears, and what they do to prepare to go into hibernation,” Corbit told Science Magazine. “But of course you don’t see bears running around with diabetes and heart disease.”

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The implications of controlling PTEN in humans are many. Corbit indicated previous research found people missing one gene for PTEN production are less likely to develop metabolic or cardiovascular disease even as they gain weight. While the control of PTEN won’t prevent other illnesses like cancer, it could offer a way to combat more chronic illnesses than just diabetes alone.

“Moving forward, this more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between diabetes and obesity should enable researchers not only to develop therapies targeting these mechanisms, but also to identify the appropriate patients to whom these therapies should be targeted,” he said.