Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: What Can Hibernation Tell Us About Human Health?

Credit: Karen Laubenstein (Big Game Alaska)/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

When bears, bats, and other animals prepare to hibernate, they pack on fat at an impressive pace to almost double their weight. As they drift off into their winter slumber, their heart rates, breathing, and metabolism slow dramatically. Hibernating mammals can survive in this state of torpor for a period of weeks or even months without eating or drinking anything at all!

It’s a fascinating and still rather mysterious process—and one that William Israelsen of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, thinks may yield intriguing insights with implications for human health. A recipient of a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Israelsen plans to use a little-known mouse species to study hibernation in the laboratory at a level of detail that’s not possible in the wild. He especially wants to learn how hibernating animals shift their metabolic gears over the course of the year, and what those findings might reveal about human obesity, cancer, and other health conditions.

Hibernation hasn’t always been at the forefront of Israelsen’s mind. As a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA, the Utah native was focused on cancer, specifically at understanding how cancer cells ramp up their metabolism to replicate at a rapid pace. But during a discussion with a lab mate, a light bulb went off: cancer involves powering up of cellular metabolism, while hibernation involves powering it down. So, it occurred to the pair that if they could figure out the mechanism of metabolic control in hibernating animals, it might illuminate understanding of how metabolic control runs amok in cancer.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.