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Belize’s fruit bats may be the answer to a global diabetes cure, UCSF study suggests

Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2024. 5:08 am CST.

By Horace Palacio: Scientists from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) are pivoting their diabetes research to study the humble fruit bat, in a move that holds promising implications for tackling the widespread disease. These creatures, often seen as nature’s ‘superheroes’ due to their unique dietary habits, have become a focal point in understanding and potentially combating diabetes, a disease affecting millions worldwide. This groundbreaking research was recently highlighted in a detailed study reported by SuchTV.

While humans face severe health risks from high-sugar diets, including diabetes, obesity, and cancer, fruit bats thrive on a diet rich in sugar. Researchers at UCSF, led by Nadav Ahituv, PhD, director of the UCSF Institute for Human Genetics, are delving deep into the genetic makeup of these bats to uncover how they manage to process such high levels of sugar without any adverse effects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 422 million people globally suffer from diabetes, with 1.5 million deaths annually linked to this preventable disease. In the UAE, one in five people are estimated to have diabetes, a figure that is expected to double by 2040. Similarly alarming statistics are seen in Saudi Arabia and worldwide, with the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) reporting that 537 million adults live with diabetes – a figure anticipated to rise dramatically in the coming decades.

Diabetes, characterized by the body’s inability to produce or properly use insulin, leads to serious complications like kidney failure, heart attacks, and even blindness. Ahituv’s team is focusing on the bat pancreas and kidneys, organs crucial in regulating blood sugar. Their findings show that fruit bats possess additional insulin-producing cells in their pancreas, along with genetic adaptations allowing them to handle large sugar quantities. Furthermore, their kidneys have evolved to retain essential electrolytes despite their sugary diet.

Wei Gordon, PhD, co-first author of the study and assistant professor of biology at Menlo College, emphasized the significance of these genetic changes, pointing out their potential role in advancing our understanding of sugar metabolism. This research is particularly relevant for the one in three Americans who are prediabetic.

The study involved comparing the Jamaican fruit bat with the big brown bat, which feeds on insects. By analyzing gene expression and regulatory DNA in individual cells, researchers could pinpoint how each bat species’ organs adapted to their specific diets. In fruit bats, the pancreas and kidneys evolved to efficiently manage sugar intake, whereas the big brown bat’s organs are fine-tuned for a protein-rich, water-conserving diet.

Interestingly, the regulatory DNA, previously dismissed as ‘junk,’ plays a pivotal role in these adaptations. It helps the fruit bat’s body respond to fluctuations in blood sugar levels, a mechanism that could offer insights into diabetes management in humans.

In a twist that brings the research closer to Belize, Gordon and Ahituv participated in an annual Bat-a-Thon held in the country. This event, attended by nearly 50 bat researchers, focuses on taking a census of wild bats and collecting field samples. One of the Jamaican fruit bats captured during this Bat-a-Thon contributed to the sugar metabolism study.

This research underscores the growing interest in studying bats to enhance human health. By looking beyond traditional model organisms like laboratory mice, scientists like Gordon and Ahituv are uncovering nature’s solutions to human health crises, potentially offering hope to millions affected by diabetes.


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