How Sleepy Bears Can Prevent a Deadly Problem for People
Welcome to our first Gene Shorts Episode! It’s the trademark storytelling you love in Nice Genes! but bite sized.
In this episode Dr. Kaylee Byers speaks with Producer Phoebe Melvin about a potentially life saving discovery lurking in the damp depths of brown bear caves.
Dr. Kaylee Byers, Old-timey Announcer, Phoebe Melvin
Old-timey Announcer 00:02
Hello there, I’m glad you could join us again today.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:05
Take a big stretch for me, everyone. We’ve been resting for a little bit, and it’s time to wake up, we’re super keen to tell you some more amazing science stories from the realm of genomics. But first, you might have noticed the time count on this episode a little bit shorter than usual. So welcome to our very first Gene Shorts episode.Read Transcript
Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:34
Instead of the big delicious episodes you’re used to these ones are bite sized. And joining me today to wake up from our hibernation is someone who is just crawling out of bed right now our very own producer from Down Under. Phoebe Melvin, how are you doing? How are things down in Australia?
Phoebe Melvin 00:53
Yeah, I’m good. It’s it’s early in the morning. But I’m excited to be talking with you this morning.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 00:57
I actually just rolled out of bed. But I don’t have any excuse to have done that because it is the middle of the day. So yeah, what do you got for us today? Here? You got a really fun story.
Phoebe Melvin 01:10
Yeah, well, it is going to put a bit of a downer on what you’ve just said, No. I mean, it can actually be dangerous to be sedentary like to be lying down for a really long time. You might have heard about some of the things that it can do to your body there. And some researchers have made a really interesting discovery about blood clots that can form when people are stationary or sedentary for a really long time.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 01:32
Can you start off and tell us what blood clots are and why they’re bad for our health?
Phoebe Melvin 01:37
Yeah, so blood clot’s when your blood clumps together, and it’s really great if you’re trying to heal a wound, but it’s a big problem if you’re not trying to heal a wound, and then that clot is just forming deep inside your veins. 10,000 people die every year just in Canada from issues related to blood clots and deep vein thrombosis — Horrifying, but in the States, one person dies every six minutes from blood clot related issues.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 02:03
So blood clots, sometimes good if you’re healing, but also sometimes not. So where’s this potential solution to dealing with blood clots?
Phoebe Melvin 02:12
Yeah, so the solution might be found tucked away in the cold winter cave of brown bears,
Old-timey Announcer 02:17
The great brown bear.
Phoebe Melvin 02:20
Or grizzly bears, as they’re called in Canada. So let’s dive in. Basically, some researchers decided that they wanted to have a look at the blood of hibernating brown bears, trekked out into the middle of basically nowhere in Sweden. Really remote area, super cold, snow’s on the ground, they had to go out on skidoos and they traveled out to where the bears were sleeping. They were able to find where they were because the bears were wearing GPS collars. So they then dug out the bears, which seems a bit unkind when they’re sleeping—
Dr. Kaylee Byers 02:55
Phoebe Melvin 02:57
—obviously had to tranquilize them to make sure that the bears were safe and the people were safe. They took a blood sample, popped the bears back in their hole, tucked them back in, let them go back to sleep, sent their bloods off for analysis. And then when the bears woke up again in the summertime, they were able to track them again. This time, obviously, no skidoos, went out in helicopters, found the bears, again, tranquilized them—sorry bears— took a blood test, then sent those bloods back to the laboratory. And they were able to do comparisons between the winter-hibernating-blood and the summer-alert-walking-around-blood and see if there were any differences between the two samples.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 03:37
Okay, so they looked at their sleepy winter blood. And then they looked at their thriving summer ‘we’re living our best lives’ blood and what did they find?
Phoebe Melvin 03:46
Right, so they were able to look at one really specific protein that’s coded by the bear’s genes. And the protein is called: heat shock protein 47, which is shortened to HSP47. It’s a protein that sits on the surface of blood platelets, and it’s involved with blood clotting. And they could see that the levels of HSP47 were significantly higher in the summer months when the bears were walking around, potentially getting injured, might need to be able to clot their blood in response to that, and significantly lower when the bears were hibernating, so that the blood was not as much at risk of forming blood clots. Bears, they can form blood clots, that definitely happens in summer months, but it just doesn’t happen when they sleeping.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 04:34
That’s cool for bears. Do we see anything like that in people at all?
Phoebe Melvin 04:39
Yeah, so humans also have this protein in their bodies, that fascinatingly, people who have spinal cord injuries, who are immobilized, which is I guess, kind of like the same state that the bears are in when they’re hibernating— their bodies aren’t mobile—their levels of HSP47 are downregulated as well. Bears walking around, people who are walking around and active, HSP47 level is significantly higher.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 05:05
Okay, so that’s super interesting. What does it mean? What’s the big bear-size picture?
Phoebe Melvin 05:11
So to double check that this sort of happens in people who are also going through temporary immobilization, so not people with spinal cord injuries, but people who need to be immobile, perhaps someone who’s had an injury and needs to be in traction, somebody who has recently undergone surgery and needs to stay on bed rest, so they sort of recruited 10 people, it sounds like a killer job, they got 10 people to just lie down for 27 days and do nothing.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 05:40
Phoebe Melvin 05:41
Looked at the HSP47 levels, and yeah, over time, those protein levels in their blood dropped as well. And so this tells us that this is a naturally occurring process that when the body registers ‘I’m not moving. I don’t need to be producing the same level of HSP47,’ those levels dropped over time. But researchers kind of want to know, can we speed that process up? Because at the moment, all medicine is sort of able to do for us is give us anticoagulants, so blood thinners to stop the blood clots from forming, but that can create other problems. So instead of saying, ‘Let’s treat the clots by preventing the clots using anticoagulants,’ which then leads to more problems, the researchers think that if we can intentionally alter the levels of this protein in people’s blood, it might be really helpful for patients who have just undergone surgery who need to be stationary for a period of time. It could be people who are in traction after a broken limb, it might be somebody who’s experienced physical trauma, and interestingly, even people who are going to space—apparently astronauts are more at risk of developing blood clots. So this discovery could really help a lot of people, making sure that their risk of developing blood clots isn’t increased because of their circumstances.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 07:01
So maybe one day in the future, I’m trading in my compression socks for my flight to Australia for some kind of little device that’s going to turn on my HSPs, or my heat shock protein—turn them down.
Phoebe Melvin 07:13
Yeah, turn that down.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 07:16
Well, thank you so much Phoebe for helping us kick off our very first Gene Shorts episode by pulling into an excellent little science story.
Phoebe Melvin 07:23
Too right. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, Kaylee and I look forward to our next Gene Shorts episode.
Dr. Kaylee Byers 07:34
All right, we’re going to be back atcha with more Gene Shorts! stories very soon and hold on to your shorts, the jean ones or jean jackets or whatever, because season three is coming to you real soon. And if you’re like a bear waking from hibernation yourself and want to claw into some excellent science content around bears, check out our first episode on season two of Nice Genes!, which we called ‘Pizzlys, anyone?’ Until next time,