Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Dolphins & diabetes

By Martha McKenzie, Photography by John Trice

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Stephanie Venn-Watson 00MPH studies dolphins to learn how to prevent diabetes.

In her work as a veterinary epidemiologist and director of clinical research at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, Venn-Watson discovered that dolphins are susceptible to metabolic syndrome, or prediabetes, just like humans. But unlike humans, dolphins can switch in and out of this state and never go on to develop full-blown diabetes.

Venn-Watson uncovered this surprising ability by accident while doing routine blood work on the dolphins in the Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego Bay. These animals work for the Navy to find and detect underwater objects, and Venn-Watson helps care for them in exchange for being able to study them. When she compared the blood chemistry of dolphins that had fasted through the night to that of dolphins who had just been fed, she was startled.

“Instead of seeing differences similar to other animals in fasting and non-fasting states, we were surprised to see differences that looked like people with diabetes versus those without diabetes,” says Venn-Watson. “The dolphins that fasted were diabetic-like, and when they ate, they weren’t.”

Venn-Watson hypothesizes this ability to slip in and out of a prediabetic state stems from the need for glucose to feed their large brains. “They don’t eat glucose—fish is a high-protein, low-carb diet. So they need to make it,” she says. “We think they have a gene that switches on to make glucose when they need it.”

To test this, the Navy is working with the Salk Institute to mine the dolphin genome and look for that switch. If they can find it, it could lay the groundwork for gene therapy for humans.

In another study, Venn-Watson looked at two populations of dolphins with different rates of metabolic syndrome—the Navy’s group in San Diego Bay, which had a high rate, and a group in the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which had a lower rate. She studied the diets of both—the San Diego dolphins primarily ate capelin and their Sarasota counterparts favored mullet—to see if that could explain the differences. She expected to find that the group that was protected from metabolic syndrome had a diet high in omega 3 fatty acid, but she was surprised again. The nutrient that was actually predictive of lower levels of prediabetes turned out to be a saturated fat, C17, which is found in mullet, and also in butter and whole milk.

Venn-Watson put the dolphins with metabolic syndrome on a high-mullet, low-capelin diet for six months. By the end, the animals’ insulin levels came down and their glucose normalized—they were no longer prediabetic.

These findings have led her and her team to wonder if the shift away from whole dairy fats that began in the early 1980s following revised USDA guidelines has resulted in a C17 deficiency, which in turn has fueled a diabetes epidemic.

The U.S. Navy has a pending patent on C17 as a drug treatment for metabolic syndrome, and Venn-Watson and her husband, a Navy physician, have started a small business, EpiTracker, to do the research needed to move C17 through the FDA drug approval process.

“We hope these discoveries can someday lead to therapies to prevent, treat, and maybe even cure diabetes,” says Venn-Watson.

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