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Why Winnie-the-Pooh could hold the key to beating diabetes

A team at Washington State University made the discovery by feeding honey, Pooh's favorite food, to hibernating bears.

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Winnie-the-Pooh and his best friend Christopher Robin. (Ernest Howard Shepard/Wikimedia Commons) 

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Winnie-the-Pooh could hold the key to beating diabetes, according to new research.

Every year bears gain an enormous amount of weight, then barely move for months.

A sugar-rich diet is the main trigger for the metabolic disorder in humans. It is caused by resistance to insulin, a hormone that controls glucose.

However bears can turn it on and off, almost like a switch but now scientists have found their secret - a particular set of hibernation proteins.

Thousands of changes in gene expression were narrowed down to eight, specifically.

A team at Washington State University (WSU) made the discovery by feeding honey, Pooh's favorite food, to hibernating bears.

Lead author Professor Joanna Kelley, of WSU, said: "There seem to be eight proteins that are working either independently or together to modulate the insulin sensitivity and resistance that is seen in hibernating bears.

"All of these eight proteins have human homologs. They are not unique to bears. The same genes are in humans, so that means maybe there is a direct opportunity for translation."

They looked at changes in cell cultures exposed to blood serum drawn from grizzlies housed at the WSU Bear Centre.

A European brown bear, less cuddly than Winnie-the-Pooh. ( Francis C. Franklin/Wikimedia Commons)

Samples were collected during active and hibernating seasons - including one that was interrupted by being given water laced with honey.

Different cocktails highlighted the genetic alterations. It was serum from the mid-hibernation feeding period that helped most in identifying the important proteins.

Explained Prof Kelley: "By feeding the bears just for two weeks during hibernation, it allowed us to control for other things like day length and temperature as well as food availability."

Bears usually get up and move a little during hibernation but do not eat, urinate or defecate.

Waking moments were used to offer them the treat. The extra sugar was also found to disrupt hibernation behavior - enabling the first study of its kind.

When the serum was put onto a cell culture taken from regularly hibernating bears, they began to exhibit changes in gene activity similar to those from an active season.

Prof Kelley and colleagues plan to investigate how the proteins work to reverse insulin resistance.

The findings may ultimately lead to the development of therapies that prevent, or even cure, diabetes.

Co-first author Dr. Blair Perry, also from WSU, said: "This is progress toward getting a better understanding of what is happening at the genetic level and identifying specific molecules that are controlling insulin resistance in bears."

Tools for understanding genetics are becoming more sophisticated. The researchers recently mapped the complete DNA of brown bears, of which grizzlies are a member.

The updated genome may help provide even better insights into bear genetics including how they manage hibernation.

Dr. Perry, who has also worked out the genetic makeup of snake venom, said: "There is inherent value to studying the diversity of life around us and all of these unique and strange adaptations that have arisen.

"By understanding the genomic basis of these adaptations, we gain a better understanding of what we share with other species, and what makes us unique as humans."

The study in iScience is potentially priceless - for diabetics.

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