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Scientists Study Obesity Via Grizzly Bears

Who are you calling fat? Grizzlies could help scientists shed new light on weight gain.

by: Trent Knoss

As we head into our annual season of bingeing on delicious festive treats (and then making fitness resolutions a week later), let's take a second to applaud our friend the grizzly bear, who really seems to have this whole weight gain/weight loss thing figured out.

Grizzlies are large and in charge most of the time. They weigh half a ton (~1,000 lbs), consume as many as 50,000 calories each day, and can still run as fast as 30 miles per hour. Then, as winter approaches, grizzlies pack on an additional 100 lbs to live off of during hibernation. Yet somehow, that sharp turn into obesity doesn't appear to impact the bears' long-term health. Their arteries don't clog, their blood sugar levels stay level, and their hearts don't falter. In the spring, the bears have no trouble dropping their winter love handles and getting back to their normal fighting weight.

Now, as The Wall Street Journal reports, pharmaceutical companies have taken notice. Instead of the usual lab rats, a group of Washington scientists has turned to grizzlies in the hope of unlocking the biological mechanisms behind the bears' "healthy" obesity:

Dr. [Kevin] Corbit, who says he had worked "exclusively on mice" before joining Amgen in 2011, says his studies of fat and blood samples suggest the bears respond to excessive weight gain differently than many people.

The bears seem to adjust their sensitivity to the hormone insulin that controls how much the fat and sugars in food are broken down and stored for energy. The bears are more sensitive to insulin while putting on pounds for hibernation. When hibernating a few weeks later, the bears shut off their insulin responsiveness entirely.

Researchers hope that these bear trials (which could involve sequencing the grizzly's genome) will eventually lead to new medications and treatments for severely overweight humans.

Read more: The Wall Street Journal

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