Scientists studying hibernation for humans

Feed me Friday: Bears can gain up to 30 pounds a week in the period leading up to hibernation. © Getty

Should humans learn to hibernate? A bear can “pause” its body for months on end without suffering any harm. Researchers think this ability, if harnessed by humans, could transform medicine.

A bear’s year has three stages. From May and throughout summer, the animal is active: hunting, exploring and mating. In late September, there is a period of intense eating. And then in January, it enters hibernation and does not wake until late spring.

Hibernation is reasonably common in the animal kingdom among mountain pygmy possums to thirteen-lined ground squirrels, that can adjust their body temperature to match the air around them.

But to scientists, it is a medical marvel. During hibernation, a bear’s metabolism and heart rate slow significantly; nitrogen in the blood shoots up, without harming the liver or kidneys, and its body becomes resistant to insulin.

Any human undergoing these conditions would be left diabetic and obese, with atrophied muscles and weak bones.

Researchers hope that if we can unlock the secrets of this state of suspended animation, we can harness them to transform human health.

In fact, it’s already being done.

In the early 2000s, as scores of soldiers died from catastrophic wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, molecular biologist Dr Matt Andrews was studying hibernating ground squirrels.

He developed a melatonin injection, which could prevent the body from going into hemorrhagic shock after losing significant amounts of blood. It contains a chemical used by squirrels to protect their cells from low blood flow during hibernation. Clinical trials of the drug are now on the horizon.

Hibernation could also help to save the lives of millions of people waiting for organ transplants around the world.

Currently, a liver or kidney stored in a cold liquid solution can be used for 24 hours after death. A heart or lung is viable for just six hours.

“Transplantations have to be very well planned out, and there’s no such thing as organ banks,” Dr. Andrews said.

But if scientists could put an organ into a hibernation-like state, slowing down its metabolic rate, it could potentially last much longer.

Could hibernation be the key to humanity’s journey across the stars? As it stands, a spacecraft setting off on the 2.5 year trip to Mars would need to carry burdensome quantities of water, food, air and medical supplies. But not if the astronauts could be put into a state of deep sleep for the voyage.

Should humans learn to hibernate?

The big sleep

Absolutely, say some. In the USA alone, 21 people die every day waiting for an organ transplant. From traumatic injuries to obesity-related diseases and diabetes, unlocking the secrets of hibernation could let us alleviate a great amount of human illness and suffering. Why on earth wouldn’t we do it?

But not so fast, say others. For bears and squirrels, hibernation is a part of their nature. They have evolved the ability to survive in their harsh habitats. Why can’t we appreciate nature without trying to manipulate it for our own ends? It is terrifyingly dangerous to experiment with our fundamental nature as humans.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to hibernate every year?
  2. Have we reached the limit of what medicine can do?

Activities

  1. Write a poem about a bear. It should be more than 15 lines long.
  2. Research an animal that hibernates and put together a poster about it, filled with images and fascinating facts.

Some People Say...

“Health is the state about which medicine has nothing to say.”

W. H. Auden (1907-1973), Anglo-American poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Animals that hibernate include bears, squirrels, groundhogs, raccoons, skunks, dormice and bats. Hibernation is not restricted to mammals: frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes, snail, fish and some insects are in hibernation or dormant during the cold, winter months. While they are hibernating, the heart rate for many animals slows to less than 10 beats per minute.
What do we not know?
Although scientists are beginning to understand how animals’ bodies cope with hibernation, they now know that process is incredibly complicated, involving many different genes. While they may once have hoped to “inject into a non-hibernating animal, and have them fall over and go to sleep”, said Charles Robbins, director of the WSU Bear Centre. “We realise that there are an enormous number of genes changing.”

Word Watch

Mountain pygmy possums
A mouse-sized, nocturnal marsupial that lives in Australia.
Thirteen-lined ground squirrels
Also known as the striped gopher, it is widely found in the grasslands of North America.
Metabolism
The chemical processes that your body performs in order to stay alive, like turning food into energy.
Atrophied
Wasted away,
Animation
Not as in a cartoon. Animation can also mean the state of being alive.
Molecular biologist
They study the cells, proteins and other tiny matter of living things.
Hemorrhagic shock
When cells go into shock because they are not getting enough blood. The condition can be fatal.
Horizon
It has been successfully trialled in rats. The team is in talks with the US Food and Drug Administration to set up clinical trials.
2.5 year
The distance between the planets varies from as little as 54.6 million kilometres to 401 million kilometres, depending on where they are in their orbits.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.