Dr. Seth Donahue, a biomedical engineer at Michigan Technological University, is studying the physiology of bears to discover why they don’t develop osteoporosis. The disease, which is often linked to lack of bone movement in humans, does not seem to strike bears that can hibernate for up to six months and not worry about anything, let alone osteoporosis.
Dr. Donahue found that bears have a uniquely potent form of a substance called parathyroid hormone, which helps maintain bones. The ursine version of the substance spurs bone growth when it normally wouldn’t occur, offsetting the deterioration that one would expect for a bear snoozing away in the woods.
Dr. Donahue’s group has sequenced the gene for the bear parathyroid hormone and has had a small amount of it made synthetically. He’s applied for a government grant to fund the lab’s efforts to insert the gene into bacteria and coax them to produce the substance.
But how do you get a hormone sample from a bear in the first place? Very carefully. At first, Dr. Donahue relied on a colleague at Virginia Tech for blood samples taken from a half-dozen bears tracked with radio tags.
Even hibernating bears need to be anesthetized before a needle is inserted to draw their blood, or they might awaken, distorting the results and putting the researchers at risk. “It’s not like rats where you can get 100 animals and bring them into the lab and do whatever you want with them,” Dr. Donahue said.
Its not clear whether hedgehogs, bats, or mouse lemurs, all of which also hibernate in the winter, are prone to osteoporosis. Perhaps it would be wise to look into that, as trying to get at and anesthetize a sleeping bear can lead to a grizzly loss of one of your lab techs.
More at the Wall Street Journal…