Factors that help bears stay healthy during hibernation may be useful for humans.
Last month we told you about some of the latest research on bears, hibernation, and a connection that may help manage heart disease in humans. But this month there yet another development that bear researchers have stumbled upon, this time regarding a potential new way to treat injuries in humans based on lessons learned from animal hibernation.
It has long been understood that people lose bone mass as they age. Women, for example, after menopause, lose 1 to 2% bone density per year. Patients who are stuck in bed long term can lose 3 to 4% each month. A chronic problem not just with aging, but with every major injury; the body is unable to maintain itself.
Hibernating animals on the other hand have a biological advantage, while they sleep for months at a time, their bodies preserve bone mass and keep things generally healthy and ready for when it is time to wake up. To put it more technically, Colorado State University biomedical engineer Seth Donahue explains: “Just as in humans, bear bones release minerals during periods of inactivity. But instead of excreting calcium, PTH induces its re-absorption by the kidneys and puts it back in bears’ skeletons,” Donahue says. “Osteocalcin is a protein normally excreted in the urine. Since bears do not urinate during hibernation, osteocalcin levels increase and contribute to bone mineralization and
You may be thinking – lucky bears, but how does this help humans? The question Donahue’s team is tackling is whether or not a synthetic version of bear PTH can be used in other organisms with the same level of success it has in keeping bears healthy and strong. They are currently testing their first version of bear PTH on lab rats which have osteoporosis. A successful result could lead to a major breakthru in fighting that same bone disease in women.
But the benefits and biological processes of hibernation go beyond bones and muscles, other researchers are looking into aspects of metabolism, breathing, and overall preserving of an organism despite some kind of shut down due to injury or environment. It would appear that the benefits of hibernation are not only impressive but also potentially useful if they can be recreated in humans.
Photo: Marshmallow / flickr
hibernation in animals, polar bear hibernation, brown bear hibernation