Diabetic Dolphins?


First, an update to my previous post, which was supposed to be about anti-CD3 monoclonal antibodies but was rudely interrupted when I dropped my pump in the toilet: this was a bad idea. Despite the fact that the pump had spent approximately .3 of a second dipped into the tank, it decided it had a “button error” and stopped working, leaving me stranded in Yosemite with no pump and a bottle of Lantus that expired in 2007. I got NPH from the emergency clinic (NPH can be sold over the counter — who knew?) and have spent the last two days struggling to keep my blood sugars in a quasi-normal range — not to mention feeling a renewed sense of appreciation for the technology that helps keep me alive.

Right now I’m at my desk, waiting for my replacement to arrive, and am in the need of a pick-me-up — so imagine my delight when I found this article from the (British) Times about Type 2 diabetes and, wait for it, DOLPHINS.

I recently got back from a whale-watching raft trip on which I witnessed a humpback whale breach right next to our boat — and started to cry. I’ll admit, I have a thing for marine mammals. So I’m fascinated by the news that dolphins, bottlenosed, to be exact, are the only known mammals besides humans to naturally develop a form of Type 2 diabetes. To quote:

American scientists have discovered that bottlenosed dolphins show a form of insulin resistance very similar to that seen in human diabetes. Unlike patients with the condition, the marine mammals can turn this state on and off when appropriate, so it is not normally harmful.

The findings indicate that dolphins could provide a valuable animal model for investigating type 2 diabetes, which promises to advance research into new therapies. If researchers can learn how the animals switch off their insulin resistance before it becomes damaging, it could be possible to develop a cure.

This does not mean that we’re going to start killing dolphins so we can check out their pancreases (the researchers probably know that’d be a PR disaster) — instead, they plan to use “studies of their genetic code and physiology, revealed by blood and urine samples, [to] provide important clues to the biology of diabetes.”

Here is some more information:

The unexpected discovery has emerged from a study of more than 1,000 blood samples collected from 52 dolphins. When the animals had fasted overnight, their blood sugar remained high and their blood chemistry changed in ways similar to diabetic patients. Unlike people with diabetes, the dolphins’ blood reverted to normal once they had been fed.

Dr Venn-Watson said that such controlled diabetes might be beneficial to dolphins. Their diet of fish is high in protein and low in sugar, and they often go long periods without eating, yet they have large brains with high energy demands.

By making their bodies resistant to insulin while fasting, they may be able to keep their brains well supplied with sugar. Once they have eaten, the insulin resistance stops to prevent damage to their health.

How could this be beneficial to our treatment of Type 2?

If dolphins indeed have a genetic fasting switch that can turn diabetes on and off, then finding and controlling such a switch could lead to the control of insulin resistance and possibly the cure to type 2 diabetes in humans.

I am now going to insert a photograph of a dolphin.

Tell me that didn’t make you feel better.

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Robert Scheinman
13 years ago

I think they are laughing at us….

Dr. Margaret A. Morris
13 years ago

Haha, yes, yes it did make me feel better. When I saw an article about the dolphin-diabetics the other day, I sent it to my husband and said, “See, dolphins are awesome.” We of course immediately referenced the movie Johnny Mnemonic as proof.

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