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How A Fat Grizzly Bear Could Help You Avoid Diabetes

Courtney Flatt

Washington State University’s mascot is the cougar, but the university is also home to the nation’s only captive grizzly bear research center. A new study involving those bears yields insights into possible therapies for human obesity and diabetes.

Grizzly bears pile on the fat every autumn. But in their obese state through hibernation, they don’t appear to suffer health consequences like overweight humans do.

Researchers from WSU and the biotech company Amgen took blood and tissue samples from six captive grizzly bears over two seasons to see how the animals avoid diabetic ailments.

Amgen scientist Kevin Corbit said the study revealed a protein that acts like a “dimmer switch” before and after hibernation.

“Where you can turn up and turn down how much the cells respond to insulin,” he explained. “I think that’s what the bears have taught us. They don’t change the amount of insulin floating around in their blood from period to period. What they do instead is they ramp up and down how they respond to that,” in terms of storing or releasing blood sugar.

This week, Corbit and a team of co-authors published findings in the journal Cell Metabolism that could someday lead to a different treatment approach to human diabetes.

“I do in my heart believe that what we are learning from the bears can be applied to humans,” Corbit said.

The dozen bears at WSU have also been used in separate studies of heart disease avoidance.


To learn more about the health science behind this study read this story by Kara Manke at NPR.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.