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Synthetic Chemical From Bears Could Stall Onset of Diabetes

Photo of a black bear cub climbing a tree.

A black bear cub climbs a tree in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Photograph by Gavriel Jecan, Corbis.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science wrote about the connection between TUDCA and bear bile in its press release concerning type 1 diabetes. The association has since removed this reference. Bear bile has a historical and contextual relationship to the research discussed within this article, and our story is still accurate as it stands.

Harvard scientists have discovered a chemical in bear bile that may slow the development of type 1 diabetes, according to a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. However, researchers condemn the farming of bears for bile and suggest that a synthetic version of the bile be used. 

The bitter, yellow-green liquid drained from the gallbladder of a bear is a common ingredient in many traditional Chinese medicines, and proponents believe it cures everything from liver disease to epilepsy.

“The gallbladder of the bear was one of the most valuable voodoo medicines that people used, especially in China,” said Gokhan Hotamisligil, a geneticist at Harvard University School of Public Health.

“It almost made the black bear extinct [in China]. It started illicit harvesting and trafficking of bear gallbladder.” (See “Endangered Moon Bears Harvested for Bile in Vietnam.”)

The remedy has been prescribed for centuries—the first known medicinal reference to bear bile was recorded in A.D. 659 —and it’s still used controversially today. “Some 10,000 bears are farmed in China to procure their bile for traditional Chinese medicine,” according to a 2012 letter published in the journal Nature, often in inhumane conditions.

Hotamisligil said he condemns the practice.

“Our work should be used as strong evidence against the use of bear bile for any scientific or medical purpose,” he said in a written statement issued by an animal rights group in response to this article. “…Any alternative sources, including synthesis, exist that does not involve this cruel approach.”

Treating Diabetes

No bears were harmed in the making of Hotamisligil’s study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. You can get bear bile-like chemicals from other types of animals like oxen. Hotamisligil purchases it from a company that harvests it out of livestock. He’s using the unappetizing stuff in an attempt to resolve what he calls “the biggest global threat to health.”

“We believe in 25 years there will be in the range of half a billion people in the world with diabetes,” he said. “The magnitude of the problem is intense. We’re going to face a huge problem if we don’t deal with this.”

There are two types of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes happens when the immune system attacks and maims beta cells, which help produce insulin. Insulin regulates your blood sugar, which ebbs and flows depending on what you eat. Without it, your blood sugar can spike or drop so quickly that you go into a coma. In people with type 2 diabetes, the pancreas may produce insulin, but their bodies don’t respond to the hormone.

Type 1 diabetes is mostly a problem for children, who usually develop the disease in their early years up until young adulthood. Bile is rich in a chemical called TUDCA, which stands for tauroursodeoxycholic acid. The substance appears to shield the beta cells in mice models from immune system attack.

“If we give animals [TUDCA before they] become diabetic, they never become diabetic,” Hotamisligil said.

Their beta cells do not succumb to attacks from the body’s immune system, and they continue to produce insulin, he added. “There is a very dramatic protection.”

Waiting for a Disease

Scientists have the ability to identify children who are at risk for developing type 1 diabetes, but right now, there’s nothing they can do with the information but wait for symptoms to develop. If bear bile is effective in humans, it could potentially slow or even halt the progression of this life-changing illness.

In higher concentrations, the bile might even help people at risk for type 2 diabetes, Hotamisligil said.

“The research is important because it shows the use of a very safe drug that could be used to either prevent or slow the onset of the disease,” said Rudy Leibel, a molecular geneticist at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City who was not involved in the research.

The Harvard scientist has given himself a tight timeline. His team tried hundreds of thousands of molecules before settling on bear bile in 2004. Now Hotamisligil wants to move to human trials in no more than a year and a half. Because bear bile is already FDA-approved for clinical use, Hotamisligil’s goal might not be out of reach.

“The funding for biomedical research has been cut, [but] we will find resources one way or another and start a trial,” Hotamisligil said. “We’ll initiate this in humans.”

Comments

  1. Theodora Capaldo, EdD
    United States
    November 26, 2013, 10:53 am

    The media’s coverage of this study is predictively – and falsely – overenthusiastic and sensationalizing. Such careless journalism contributes to the difficulty we face moving science forward toward research that can and will predict human response – science that does not use animals.

    Putting aside well-documented evidence showing how non-predictive research data from mice is when applied to humans (e.g., a collaborative study by academics, government, and private companies showing less than 50% – essentially the same odds as flipping a coin – of testing in rodents predicts human toxicity (http://1.usa.gov/1fDXWHu), a groundbreaking paper calling mouse models “close to random” in predicting human outcomes (http://bit.ly/1fDY1ew), and others), no words other than condemnation of cruel bear bile extraction or accolades for efforts to end such practice should be uttered in scientifically and ethically responsible journalism.

    Read New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) President Dr. Capaldo’s full response to this article at http://neavs.org/resources/publication/bear-bile-research-reporting-is-misleading-and-misguided.

  2. Dr Heather Bacon
    November 19, 2013, 4:43 am

    Thank you Christine. However the title is still extremely misleading. This research was done using chemicals from livestock NOT bears. Why is NG so reluctant to describe the science accurately? Why are you instead involving a vulnerable wild species that is not associated with this scientific work?
    Until the title is changed to ‘synthetic chemical from LIVESTOCK could delay the onset of diabetes’ this will remain inaccurate and poor journalism, and undermines the credibility of NG, and promotes the association of vulnerable wild species as a source if medicine.

  3. Joseph J Jarfas
    Equinunk, PA - USA
    November 19, 2013, 12:12 am

    ” … according to a 2012 letter published in the journal Nature, often in inhumane conditions.”
    Would it not be more appropriate to say: ‘unbearable’ conditions?:-)

  4. Jill Robinson
    China
    November 18, 2013, 10:25 pm

    Please then from a scientific, practical and moral standpoint just remove the word “bear”.

  5. Steve Jackson
    November 18, 2013, 9:08 pm

    While appreciating the changes, can we be clear…

    “Synthetic Chemical From Bears Could Stall Onset of Diabetes”

    It is not from bears.

    No bears have been used in these tests. Why is there a picture of a bear on here? We appreciate the National Geographic listening and amending their story but the determination to make bears the angle is an odd one. Even more so after Harvard quite clearly said:

    “…our work should be used as strong evidence against the use of bear bile for any purpose as it would not even be effective from a scientific and medical perspective.”

  6. Mike brocklehurst
    Laos
    November 18, 2013, 7:41 pm

    Irresponsible headlines NG – This article will only encourage countless Chinese to take bear bile and fuel the industry. This will eventually lead to the extinction of Moon bears in many parts of Asia and lead to a life of suffering for the bears in bile extraction facilities.
    Write an article about synthetic alternatives but don’t title it about bear bile curing diabetes!

  7. Christine Dell'Amore
    November 18, 2013, 11:54 am

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. The article clearly and accurately states that the study did not use bear bile or advocate the practice of bear bile for Chinese medicine. I also changed the headline to emphasize that the chemical used was not bear bile.

  8. Savannah
    November 18, 2013, 11:38 am

    Hey Florence:

    Do you know how many animals are killed in vegetable agriculture? The answer is pretty staggering. Even if you don’t care whether insects are killed, plenty of mice, rabbits, moles, and other small mammals are killed every year in the harvesting process–not to mention the animals that are killed to create farmland in the first place.

    Rob: Are you reading the same comments I am? ’cause I saw comments specifically saying that the article is glorifying an actual practice, not suggesting that the article might lead to people making a particular connection. You may want to re-read.

  9. peter egan
    London
    November 17, 2013, 6:17 pm

    Shocked to see the emphasis of this article on bear bile. There are synthetic alternatives. Why put back decades of work trying to stop the inhumane cruelty towards moon bears. It shows a deep lack of responsibility and compassion from the editorial team. Just when I was waving the National Geographic flag for dropping the appalling Melissa Bachmann from their tv programme you come up with this. Deeply saddened.

  10. Leslie
    Nc
    November 17, 2013, 12:06 pm

    When will you change this damaging and misleading headline?

  11. Pam Campa
    Durham NC
    November 17, 2013, 9:13 am

    I’m embarrassed and disappointed in NG for this article title. My friend wrote a couple of years ago about this and here is a link to that article: http://www.onearth.org/article/moon-bear-farming-bile
    Please print a retraction ASAP!

  12. laurie bley
    durham north carolina
    November 17, 2013, 9:04 am

    Shame on you for such an irresponsible headline. Though the article makes clear no actual bear bile was used, your headline allows people to conclude that bear bile is useful in medical practice and supports the continued horrible practice of bear bile farming. The information in your article is very interesting, but it is important that the headline should not support or encourage a misconception that has allowed a truly horrible practice to thrive.

  13. Anne-Tina COLLOMBET
    MONACO
    November 17, 2013, 6:34 am

    Pathetic! This article will be deliberately misinterpreted by those who believe in traditional Chinese medicine.

  14. Lisette Saunderson
    Canada
    November 17, 2013, 2:41 am

    Really upset with this article! With bear bile farming being so horrendously cruel, focusing on synthetic alternatives would have made a kinder impact. As a diabetic I could never use bear bile. I cannot describe how physically sick I feel when I see the horrors that happen to the bears on the vile bear farms. I had expected before I read this article that the National Geographic magazine might help the fight to end bear bile farming by writing articles about it.

  15. Rob
    Melbourne
    November 16, 2013, 9:44 pm

    Hey Savannah! Did you actually READ the criticisms?
    No one is suggesting bear bile was used in the study, the problem is this article could potentially perpetuate the myth that bile farming is a necessary and legitimate industry.

  16. Lisette Saunderson
    Canada
    November 16, 2013, 8:17 pm

    I am very upset with National Geographic magazine for publishing this article (I grew up with this magazine). The inhumanity of bear bile farming is staggering. It is such a vile and cruel industry. As a diabetic I do want to hear about ways to help my diabetes. But there has to be a line as conscientious human beings that we don’t cross. The excuse of research cannot give us the right to do whatever we want to the extent we want, regardless of how it affects and hurts the animals that are used. You don’t need to be an animal lover to be repelled by the bear bile industry, just a human!. The important element that made this article so upsetting was the lack of emphasis on synthetic alternatives, what a different article it could have been if that had been the focus.
    I do want to thank Gokhan Hotamisligil for reiterating what a cruel industry bear bile farming is. Thank goodness for Jill Robison founder of Animals Asia who is fighting for these bears.

  17. Lynda
    November 16, 2013, 10:37 am

    Bear bile farming is one of the worst forms of animal cruelty and for NG to remotely put a positive spin on it is disgusting. We are trying to end this unnecessary torture not promote it. I’m afraid those wackos in china that do this will read this article and feel justified even more in thier medevil practice. I will be canceling my sunscription

  18. Florence Signorini
    Ireland
    November 16, 2013, 10:31 am

    I must say I find Fred’s comment stupid and puerile and Savannah’s condescending and arrogant. Ok, the article doesn’t condone the sick Chinese practice but it doesn’t make it plain enough that it is a disgusting practice that nothing justifies. Ah but it’s ok to get it from oxen is it?? And how is that done pray tell?? I am 100% behind WSPA and Animal Asia who do such a great job rescuing those bears who have been tortured for decades by the Chinese (no surprise here unfortunately). I also find the phrasing of the title dangerous, as it makes it very misleading to whoever doesn’t take the time to read it fully. It also should take a stand against that disgusting practice and I do find it irresponsible coming from Naional Geographic. Oh and for those ready to pounce out there, yes, I am a vegan, so back off.

  19. Dr Heather Bacon
    Edinburgh UK
    November 16, 2013, 9:33 am

    I am extremely disappointed to see National Geographic, a reputable publication, publish such an inaccurate and sensationalist article. As stated in the article:
    “Dr Hotamisligil purchases it (his chemicals) from a company that harvests it out of LIVESTOCK”.

    So as this research is NOT based on bears and DID NOT use bear bile, why did Ms Bloudoff-Indelicato and the National Geographic think it appropriate to highlight an exploited species as the panacea for diabetes?
    As this chemical is found in a range of mammalian species why promote bears as a cure for a human disease when the research was not based on them?

    Bears are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, and already under intense conservation and welfare pressures from illegal trade and the horrific bile farming industry. Inaccurate, sensationalist and shoddy journalism like this which promotes endangered species’ as a cure for a disease, when the research was done on livestock, is inexcusable.

    For information on why this article is so dangerous, and information on the horrific trade in bear bile, please see
    http://www.animalsasia.org

  20. Christina Meier
    Berlin
    November 16, 2013, 3:58 am

    PLEASE change the headline to …”in ARTIFICIAL bear bile…” because some people only read the healines…

  21. Steve Jackson
    United Kingdom
    November 16, 2013, 12:53 am

    “Harvard scientists have discovered a chemical in bear bile that…”

    No they haven’t. They did not use bear bile in their tests. Even the scientist has added a comment here to make that clear.

  22. Amy H.
    Boston, MA
    November 16, 2013, 12:36 am

    While I don’t think the article necessarily needs to be retracted I do think at the very least the title should be changed as it is misleading. Many people will not take the time to read the full content and will simply take the title at face value. The illegal wildlife trade is a serious issue and I would have expected National Geographic of all organizations to be more careful.

  23. Savannah
    November 15, 2013, 11:50 am

    Hey guys! Did you actually READ the article?

    If you did, you’d see that no ACTUAL BEAR BILE was used in the research; they isolated the chemical itself and used the chemical–without harming any bears–in order to test the theory.

    So those of you demanding a retraction or saying that Nat Geo is contributing to cruelty: maybe consider the impact of your behavior on the cause of EDUCATION. Jeez, folks. A little reading comprehension goes a long way.

  24. Susanne Anderson
    London
    November 15, 2013, 10:45 am

    There are more effective alternatives both to prevent and to treat Type 2 Diabetes which are not being employed to the extent they should be.  Resveratrol, specifically Bioforte and Transmax resveratrol, have been shown in numerous clinical trials to prevent pre diabetes from evolving into full fledged Type 2 Diabetes. These supplements can also be used with drugs such as Metformin to treat Diabetes.  In two recently published human clinical trials done by respected medical schools in the US and Canada it was shown that Transmax resveratrol in the first study, and Bioforte resveratrol in the second one, had the effect of reducing blood glucose, improving insulin sensitivity, lowering blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, and even lowering body weight. The scientist who did the transmax study stated, “Resveratrol can be an effective adjunct therapy for type 2 Diabetics currently using one of the Metformin like drugs, or who are controlling their Diabetes without drugs.”

  25. Nadia Piazzi
    Luxembourg
    November 15, 2013, 9:39 am

    I am deeply disappointed that the National Geographic Society, which I always considered to be scientific, publishes such obvious nonsense. Your publication does a tremendous harm to efforts of animal societies who fight to stop the horrendous bear bile industry.
    This is not what I call serious journalism. Shame on you!
    Go to the site of Animals Asia and read this!
    https://www.animalsasia.org/intl/media/news/news-archive/scientist-at-centre-of-bear-bile-reports-denies-it%E2%80%99s-a-diabetes-cure.html

  26. World Society for the Protection of Animals
    Asia Pacific
    November 15, 2013, 6:45 am

    WSPA has sent a letter to both Mollie-Bloudoff-Indelicato and the National Geographic to express our great disappointment at the publication of this article.

    The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is passionate about protecting all wildlife from cruelty. Bears are the iconic wild animal, yet tens of thousands are forced to endure a lifetime in captivity, for entertainment or profit.

    This is why we are urging governments, corporations, traditional medicine consumers and individuals to help stop the cruel and unnecessary bear bile industry – unnecessary because viable and inexpensive alternatives to bear bile are readily available.

    It was very disappointing therefore to see this article focus so intently on the history, value and effectiveness of chemicals found in bear bile.

    There was little emphasis on the fact that the research as reported in Science Translational Medicine used a by-product of meat production in its study – clearly showing that alternatives to bear bile can be used to stall the onset of diabetes.

    Further to this, while the Harvard study outlines the potential beneficial properties of TUDCA, the fact remains that synthetic pharmaceutical-grade versions of this chemical are widely available and used in Western medicine. However, there was no reference to these viable, less expensive and more humane synthetic and herbal alternatives.

    What was also failed to be reported, while highlighting: “Some 10,000 bears are farmed in China to procure their bile for traditional Chinese medicine,” was the inhumane, cruel and painful procedures used to extract bear bile for use in traditional Asian medicines, and the full picture of the exploitation of bears in the bear bile industry.

    This article has succeeded in perpetuating the myth that bear bile is a necessary ingredient in traditional medicine and scientific research, when quite clearly it is not.

    WSPA firmly believes that helping animals helps people and animal protection is fundamentally linked to the world’s most urgent concerns facing us today: sustainability, economic development and human health can only be solved when the humane treatment of animals are a considered and critical part of the solution.

  27. Gokhan Hotamisligil
    Boston
    November 15, 2013, 12:06 am

    It is important to clarify that our work has NOT used bear bile or Tudca which is based on bear bile. In fact, our work should be used as strong evidence against the use of bear bile for any scientific or medical purpose. Furthermore, there is absolutely no basis for even considering the use of bear bile for procurement of bile acids since many alternative sources, including synthesis, exist that does not involve this cruel approach.

  28. Sisi van Dijk
    November 14, 2013, 8:12 pm

    How can we make ourselves seem more important than these animals. We can’t make them suffer because we love our kitkats and mars bars too much! This is ridiculous! I love the national geographic, but sometimes you guys need to remember that we are trying to improve our planet. It might be interesting scientifically, but you cannot put up an article that gives people the wrong opinion and so it may seem right to hurt animals again. We try so hard to make it stop and with one article you can ruin that hard work!!!! Please take this down for the better of nature.

  29. Fred
    Mississippi
    November 14, 2013, 7:11 pm

    To all of you people complaining about the animal cruelty for getting this black bear bile:

    You’re vegetarians, aren’t you?

    Not saying it’s a good thing, but, you know, if you’re complaining about the ants, you need to get rid of the antBED.

  30. El Gabilon
    November 14, 2013, 7:04 pm

    Lets get it straight. It’s not about the bears, its all about me (humanity)! If bear bile saves our lives and allows us to continue on our binge of unhealthy foods, well, thats too bad for the bears. What do bears do for us anyhow? Look at what they do in Yellowstone! Break into our food stores, break into our cars and then because they are so stupid they can’t get out and we have to call the Rangers to get our car back. Lucky us if the bear hasn’t urinated or defacated in our back seats. Then they have the gall to come out of the woods and break into our garbage cans, toss them about, creating a mess and polluting the area. They steal the salmon even though they have done nothing to protect the fish and its environment. They get mad when we humans enter the woods and attack us failing to recognize our superioirity and so we have to eliminate them. It is much easier for us to take a bile bear pill then to change our unhealthy way of life. A pox on the bears! Now if you’ll buy this, we are selling the Brooklyn Bridge…..interested?

  31. stacey
    United States
    November 14, 2013, 6:31 pm

    Hmmm, great article Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, did you run out of things to write about? Bear bile harvesting is cruel and sick, even though you say that bile is being harvest from oxen, the title of your article is claiming that bear bile does indeed cure. You are inadvertently inviting bear bile farmers to continue with their sick practice.

  32. Charles G
    November 14, 2013, 5:31 pm

    To all those getting up in arms about the research, Nat geo is not conducting this research, they are simply publishing that it is occurring, secondly, if you are up in arms about it, please read it, they specifically are explaining a process used to extract it in Chinese medicine (and putting a negative connotation on it) and informing that the researcher is obtaining his bile not from bears but from livestock meant for slaughter already.

  33. Robert Ledlam
    November 14, 2013, 4:52 pm

    I am shocked by the outrage over this article. All National Geographic is doing is telling the ‘general’ public about research being done. This article was about the possibility of finding a cure for diabetes. I love animals and am against the cruelty to all animals but the outrage is ridiculous. I for one had no idea about bear bile being used for anything. Thank you NatGeo for informing me on what is happening. If you animal lovers would like to say your piece, then do it with dignity.

  34. Susan McLoughlin
    Canada
    November 14, 2013, 3:26 pm

    I am sickened to read that the draining of bear bile is considered as an acceptable practice to prevent diabetes in humans. The bears live a brutal and painful existence. The concept is barbaric and should never be legitimized as a research project.

  35. Yo Menashe
    November 14, 2013, 12:11 pm

    Uses for Bear Barf! How fun.

    It’s good to know there are chemical substitutes and we don’t have to kill the bears to get it.

    Great pictures.

  36. Donna Dixon
    USA
    November 14, 2013, 11:53 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCwq4eRoJOA‎
    PLEASE watch this and retract your statements and apologise!
    I noticed you will not approve my other comments-
    what are you so afraid of? the truth and you have been fooled by this reporter.
    I dare you to watch this and send me an email

  37. Donna Dixon
    GA- USA
    November 14, 2013, 11:48 am

    Bad move National Geographic!
    Bad Move!
    Please retract this article and put out an apology or I promise-
    this will go viral much to YOUR SHAME!

  38. Donna Dixon Studios
    United States
    November 14, 2013, 11:45 am

    OMG! no! you did NOT just put out a letter praising bear bile- I dare you to go and see what happens in reality !!!!There is now the ways ans means to isolate the chemical in bear bile that is (they say) useful for the quacks. The farming of bile bears is now an outdated- abusive- horrible former industry of Chinese medicine.
    This is unnecessary to abuse moon bears in this way-when the same ingredient is available without the ABUSE of any animal! Oh mY gOD! I cannot believe Nt Geographic put this quack trash out there-
    SEE-Cages of shame -film footage-
    http://www.animalsasia.org/
    “Cages of Shame”

  39. Anna
    Surrey
    November 14, 2013, 9:11 am

    As someone who works for an animal charity I find it very disappointing that this is being given publicity on your website. We should in no way be encouraging the use of bear bile when we know the atrocities that are being carried out on these animals. Just because no bear was harmed in the study, does mean that others are not hurt in bear bile extraction elsewhere. I am embarrassed to subscribe to the magazine and will be cancelling my subscription immediately

  40. Michaell Chouinard
    Indianapolis IN
    November 14, 2013, 8:00 am

    TUDCA probably does lots of things, as the collective works of Dr. Hotamisligel and others have shown, but two things TUDCA administration will deflinitely do are (1) displace native FXR agonists in the gut (thereby “antagonizing” FXR) and (2) promote fat and cholesterol excretion by displacing cholate and deoxycholate and their respective conjugates from bile. The fat exretion alone appears to be anti-inflammatory toward liver and other tissues such as kidney and perhaps pancreas.

  41. ELEN RIBEIRO GUIMARÃES
    Brasil
    November 14, 2013, 7:06 am

    Para retirada dessa maldita bilis os ursos sofrem a muitos anos, já pensaram o que é ficar preso dentro de uma jaula do tamanho de uma cabine telefônica por 20, 30 anos. É crueldade demais. Então Srs. cientistas em nome da ciência vale qualquer sofrimento, mesmo sabendo que existem alternativas. Os ursos podem continuar sofrendo por causa de vocês. Que ciência é essa?

  42. Ashok Manvati
    India
    November 14, 2013, 4:54 am

    Strange are the ways of Natures Cure.