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Could Dolphins hold the key to a cure for type II diabetes?

Posted Feb 22 2010 1:09pm

New research suggests that while sufferers of diabetes may use a high protein diet as a means of controlling the condition, dolphins, conversely, seem to have developed a diabetes like state in order to support their high protein diet.

About 2 million people in the uk have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It can lead to serious medical conditions resulting in heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and blindness. Five per cent of deaths worldwide, that’s one  in twenty, can be linked to type 2 diabetes, and there is currently no cure.

Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone which controls blood sugar levels in the body. With type 2 diabetes the body acquires a resistance to insulin, and blood sugar levels can fluctuate widely, high levels resulting in gradual damage to blood vessels and nerves. Now, some new research has discovered that bottlenose dolphins have the ability to produce an insulin resistant state. While such a state in humans is unhealthy, in dolphins it serves a specific purpose and can be switched on and off as required. It is thought that dolphins have developed this capacity to cope with the long periods of fasting which they often experience at night time when they are unable to catch fish. Because the dolphins only eat fish, theirs is a high protein diet low in carbohydrates, yet their exceptionally large brains  create high energy demands. This could make it difficult to maintain their blood sugar levels. The dolphins are able to avert this problem by temporarily inducing the insulin resistant state. Once they have eaten, the period of insulin resistance ends so as not to become damaging to their health. If researchers can work out just how the dolphins manage to do this, then there could be a very real hope of finding a way to control insulin resistance in humans, and ultimately a cure for type 2 diabetes.

Mark Simmonds a spokesperson from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has questioned the usefulness of using Dolphins to study human disease, saying that they are too distantly related for it to be useful. However the findings are considered to be particularly meaningful because no other animal has been found to so closely mimic the disease that is found in humans. Up until now, research into the disease has relied upon some primates, as well as pigs, rodents and cats which display only some of its characteristics. Mark Simmonds also raised ethical concerns over the possibility of these ‘intelligent and sophisticated animals’ being removed from their natural environment for biomedical research, given the suffering and stress this could induce.
Stephanie Venn-Watson, who led the research team, also stressed the unethical aspects to potential research, but felt that important information regarding the biology of diabetes could  be discovered by studying the genetic code and physiology of the dolphins via blood and urine samples.

Hopefully the two stances are not irreconcilable and a way can be found to preserve both the health and dignity of the dolphins while harnessing the secrets they might hold for the benefit of humankind.



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