An Oceanic Light Switch for Type 2 Diabetes

An Oceanic Light Switch for Type 2 Diabetes: What if medical science could find a way to allow humans to turn diabetes on and off again? Would there be benefits? If so, where did the idea come from?

You may have watched the television show Flipper when you were young or perhaps you’ve seen reruns. What you may not have realized was that this dolphin (and others like him) could become diabetic and then return to a non-diabetic state as needed.

The way this works is that in times when food is scarce the dolphin will develop a condition that mimics diabetes. When there is plenty of food the situation reverses and the diabetic condition goes away.

This ability allows for significant blood sugar levels to maintain energy for mental function.



Right now diabetes is responsible for five in every one hundred human deaths. In fact, the prominence of diabetes is expected to double in the next ten years, as is the overall rate of obesity.

Dr, Stephanie Venn-Watson made the discovery off the coast of San Diego, California according the Telegraph.co.uk. This article reported, “By taking regular blood samples of the dolphins, she discovered that they could induce type II diabetes at times of fasting and then almost immediately turn it off again when food became available.”

The report suggests a ‘fasting gene’ exists in humans, but isn’t currently called upon to provide a similar function as observed in dolphins. The hope is that if this gene can be accessed it is possible to essentially shut off diabetes. In fact Dr. Venn-Watson suggests this ability may be the “smoking gun” in stopping diabetes in its tracks.

Dr. Venn-Watson believes that, “researching the dolphin’s DNA to work out how they do it could result in therapies in humans to switch on the ability again.”

The Telegraph article quotes Dr. Venn-Watson as saying, “Dolphins in the ocean go in to feast or famine situations. They will eat a bunch of fish at once and then they may go a while and fast and not eat.

“During that fasting state they need a mechanism to keep sugar pumping around their blood.

“Dolphins can switch off diabetes but people cannot. Could there be gene therapies that control that switch if it exists in humans. If we could control that switch like dolphins it could be a cure.

“Then identifying and controlling such a switch could lead to possibly a cure for type II diabetes in humans.”

As with many types of research one hurdle will be the care and treatment of the dolphins. Many animal rights groups have already expressed outrage that blood samples will need to be taken from dolphins to conduct the research. These animal rights groups are opposed to research on the dolphin for any purpose.

Dr. Venn-Watson told the Telegraph that, “many [dolphins] ‘volunteered’ for research, approaching the beach and putting their tails in the air to have their blood taken.”

One other complication is the fact that others within the medical community are not at all certain that dolphins use blood sugar in the same way humans do. In this regard there are questions as to the validity of the premise from which the study is derived. As with all research there will be disagreements as to the meaning and importance of the findings. For Venn-Watson this is considered a monumental finding that may alter the face of diabetes.