In a groundbreaking development, global space agencies and militaries are investing in hibernation research, drawing inspiration from the remarkable ability of bears to survive prolonged periods of deep sleep without adverse health effects. Ole Frobert, a cardiologist from Orebro University Hospital in Sweden and Aarhus University in Denmark, spearheads this research, viewing hibernating brown bears as a "living library of biological solutions."
While human attempts at hibernation could lead to severe health consequences, researchers are intrigued by the physiological resilience displayed by bears during their months-long winter hibernation. Frobert emphasises that hibernation is not a mere form of sleep but an extreme state of energy conservation, marked by a significant drop in the bear's heart rate to below 10 beats per minute.
Collaborating with bear researchers in Sweden, Frobert and Manuela Thienel from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich conducted a comprehensive study involving 13 brown bears. By collecting blood samples during both summer and winter, the research team discovered a noteworthy decrease in the abundance of a specific protein, HSP47, during the hibernation period.
HSP47, found on the surface of platelets, plays a crucial role in blood clotting. The team's findings suggest that bears, despite their extended periods of deep sleep, exhibit a reduced presence of this protein, minimising the risk of deadly blood clots.
To assess the potential application of these findings in humans, the research team examined individuals with spinal cord injuries who, like hibernating bears, demonstrated a lower incidence of blood clots. Comparatively, these patients exhibited significantly lower levels of HSP47 than uninjured individuals.
Excitingly, Frobert's team is now focused on identifying a chemical compound that could pave the way for the development of a new blood-thinning medicine with fewer side effects than existing drugs. Although the process is anticipated to take five to ten years, the implications for improved cardiovascular health and clot prevention in humans are promising, drawing inspiration from the extraordinary adaptations observed in nature's own hibernators.