This question, posed by Michigan Tech professor Dr Seth W Donahue while hiking in the Sierra Nevada, has led to the discovery of an extremely potent form of parathyroid hormone produced by black bears (Ursus americanus). In an unusual take on my usual topic of natural product therapeutics, Donahue’s hope is that the ursine form of the hormone might serve as the basis for novel drugs to treat osteoporosis in humans, hibernating (on the couch) or otherwise.
Dr. Donahue’s research on bears has advanced far enough toward a treatment for humans to capture commercial interest. Apjohn Group, a company founded by former Pharmacia & Upjohn executives in Kalamazoo, Mich., has an agreement with Michigan Tech to commercialize Dr. Donahue’s technology. To do that, they’ve created a company called Aursos, a name derived from ursos, Latin for bears.
I was first alerted to the findings by the WSJ Health Blog but then learned the story came from an article written by the always-interesting, Dr Ivan Oransky. Oransky is an MD who serves as deputy editor for The Scientist who contributes regularly to a variety of scientific and lay pubications. Whenever something from Ivan pops up, it’s usually on a topic in biology that is incredibly interesting or is an otherwise uncommon take on a common topic (such as this article on deer being a safety reservoir, and not a human risk, for carrying ticks).
And here’s a beautiful twist in the story:
Despite the hurdles, Dr. Donahue, it turns out, wasn’t the first scientist to be curious about bear bones. In 1990, a Boise, Idaho, orthopedic surgeon named Tim Floyd captured a few bears, anesthetized them and biopsied a large bone in their hips.
Dr. Floyd’s findings were provocative, Dr. Donahue said, because they suggested that bears didn’t lose bone during hibernation. Dr. Floyd entered private practice and didn’t pursue his findings. But when he learned of Dr. Donahue’s work, Dr. Floyd kicked in some of his own money to keep it rolling. Dr. Donahue also receives support from the National Institutes of Health and the Michigan Universities Commercialization Initiative.
Yes, so back to Professor Donahue – the beauty of this story illustrates the excitement of being a scientist. We are always thinking, questioning life, questioning ourselves, questioning the natural world. So here was Donahue, not a pharmacologist but a biomedical engineer, off on a strenuous but otherwise relaxing hike through the mountains. The clarity of the mountains (and perhaps the hypoxia) probably helped him associate his always-thinking mind with his natural surroundings and ask the kinds of questions that are most basic to our evolution and survival.
I hope that Donahue’s work leads to a clinical drug candidate. But for me, the payoff was in just reading his story and how he came up with the idea.