Bile Compound Prevents Diabetes in Mice

A chemical prevalent in the bear gallbladder abates a cellular stress response and stalls the progression of type 1 diabetes in rodents.

Nov 14, 2013
Kerry Grens

WIKIMEDIA, TONY HISGETTIn people with type 1 diabetes, an incurable disease diagnosed early in life, the pancreas is deficient in producing insulin. There's been some idea that stress responses from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) in pancreatic beta cells are involved, particularly the unfolded protein response. In Science Translational Medicine this week (November 13), scientists show that tamping down the ER stress response with a compound found in bear bile can slow the development of type 1 diabetes in mice.

“The study is exciting because it suggests that improving ER function before the onset of disease could reduce [type 1 diabetes] incidence,” said lead author Feyza Engin, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, in a press release.

The compound, tauroursodeoxycholic acid (TUDCA), has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments, and it was often sourced from the bile of bears. “The gallbladder of the bear was one of the most valuable voodoo medicines that people used, especially in China,” Gokhan Hotamisligil, a geneticist at Harvard University School of Public Health and a co-author of the study, told National Geographic. “It almost made the black bear extinct [in China].” Fortunately, if Hotamisligil's idea of using it to treat diabetes in humans takes off, it's possible to get the compound from non-threatened farm animals instead. According to National Geographic, his group purchased the compound from a company that harvests it from livestock.

Correction: The headline and article have been modified to reflect readers' comments that the original language suggested that the study used bear bile. The Scientist regrets the error.