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Fat Grizzly Bears May Help Scientists to Find Diabetes Drugs

Every fall, grizzly bears pack on the pounds in preparation for their winter hibernation. In humans, such extreme weight gain would likely lead to diabetes or other metabolic diseases, but the bears manage to stay healthy year after year. Their ability to remain diabetes-free, researchers have now discovered, can be chalked up to the shutting down of a protein found in fat cells. The discovery could lead to new diabetes drugs that turn off the same pathway in humans.

As people gain weight, fat, liver, and muscle cells typically become less sensitive to the hormone insulin—which normally helps control blood sugar levels—and insulin levels rise. In turn, that increased insulin prevents the breakdown of fat cells, causing a vicious cycle that can lead to full-blown insulin resistance or diabetes.

Developing new diabetes drugs has been hampered by the fact that findings from many mouse models of diabetes have not translated to humans. So Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at Thousand Oaks, California–based drug company Amgen, decided to start looking at obesity and metabolic disease in other animals. “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,” he says. “But of course you don’t see bears running around with diabetes and heart disease.”

Corbit and scientists at the Washington State University Bear Center in Pullman measured blood sugar levels, insulin levels, body weight, and other markers of the metabolism in six captive grizzly bears before, during, and after hibernation—in October, January, and May. Surprisingly, even as each bear gained more than a hundred pounds in the fall, their cells remained sensitive to insulin, and their insulin and blood sugar levels stayed constant. In people, such an immense weight gain would …

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