The number of people with diabetes continues to go up each year—right now, 37.3 million Americans currently have this health condition and one in five are undiagnosed.
As such a prevalent health problem, scientists are continuing to research new treatment methods. In a recent study on bears, they’ve discovered some interesting information that can provide insight into how to treat diabetes in humans.
Insulin resistance is the primary cause of Type 2 diabetes. But unlike humans, bears can control their insulin resistance. When bears hibernate in early winter, their fat deposits are what sustain them over several months. During hibernation, a lot of changes take place involving metabolism, heart rate and body temperature, and they become insulin resistant.
To learn more about how this happens, researchers took blood and fat tissue from six grizzly bears between 5 and 13 years old. They discovered bears can control their insulin as a result of eight proteins that help regulate insulin during hibernation. Since humans and bears have similar genes, learning more about these proteins in bears could offer clues about insulin resistance in humans.
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When your pancreas needs to work harder to produce enough insulin to regulate your blood sugar, this is called insulin resistance. Excessive adipose tissue is the biggest contributing factor to insulin resistance, Dr. Leann Poston MD, MBA, MEd, explains. As fat, liver and muscle cells become resistant to insulin's effects, blood sugar rises. The pancreas will be able to compensate by producing more insulin for a while—but when it no longer can, type 2 diabetes results.
Hibernating bears exhibit insulin resistance each winter due to stored adipose tissue (fat), which resolves in the spring. Insulin and glucose levels stay stable year-round. Understanding how this happens could lead to potential treatments for Type 2 diabetes, Dr. Poston adds.
Researchers identified eight proteins that may be responsible for turning on gene transcription and increasing protein production to shift insulin sensitivity. Further research will investigate these proteins in humans and their effects on insulin sensitivity.
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