More Bear Magic, with Implications for Medicine
Posted March 20, 2012
A recent study of hibernating black bears revealed another medical miracle unique to bears: these snoozing bears were able to heal cuts and wounds as fast as they would if their bodies were warmer and active. This is not supposed to happen: scientists have long found that mammals (including humans) that are hypothermic, with body temperatures even slightly below normal, do not heal as quickly as if their temperatures were normal.
How do the bears do it? Scientists do not yet have a complete answer. They think it may have to do with a chemical that induces hibernation and a major bile acid that they produce. But they are not yet sure of the underlying mechanisms.
With this study, scientists continue to unearth new wonders about bears that boggle the mind. In many aspects of their lives, especially in their ability to hibernate, bears do things found typically in comic books. They are somehow able to avoid losing muscle mass after five months sleeping in a den. (If it were you or me, we would be carried out in a stretcher). Their kidneys do not fail, their bones do not weaken, and their guts continue to be healthy after not eating, defecating, or drinking for these long months. From a human perspective, all of this comes close to the miraculous.
Aside from the wonder factor, there is another reason that we should care about bears’ ability to heal themselves from wounds while sleeping in a hypothermic state. The authors of the study point to the implications of this capacity for healing malnourished, hypothermic, diabetic, and elderly patients, and for reducing scarring associated with burns or traumatic injuries. If we could discover how bears do their magic, we might be able take that knowledge into hospitals, to the benefit of many.
This study provides one more reason to be especially careful about conserving bears and ensuring their health and viability: our fates may be even more intertwined than we may now think.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons: Adityo Saputra
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