Polar Bears Can Catch Colds, Too

Posted February 12, 2024 by Terri Roth

Studying the immune systems of endangered species can provide crucial information on the health and persistence of wild populations. Cytokines, which are hormones produced by immune cells, regulate inflammatory responses to infection and can increase in the blood during sickness as much as 1000 times normal concentrations. However, measuring a single cytokine provides limited information on how an animal’s immune system is functioning.

Seeking to better understand polar bear immune function and health, CREW scientists are utilizing Luminex© multiplexing technology to measure cytokine levels in polar bear serum. Multiplexing revolutionizes this process by allowing the measurement of multiple cytokines from a single sample, conserving valuable banked serum resources while providing a more comprehensive understanding of polar bear health.

Through funding from IMLS, CREW scientists have tested and successfully measured eight cytokines in 450 polar bear blood samples (totaling 3600 data points!) to examine how environmental factors (such as latitude or season) and individual traits (such as age, sex, or health status) affect polar bear immune function. Preliminary data indicate that polar bears with a history of health issues, such as liver disease or cancer, exhibit substantially elevated cytokine levels which may similarly serve as useful indicators of illness in wild populations.

Measuring immune function across the lifetime of individual polar bears will help scientists identify patterns or trends and may eventually help inform decisions regarding population management and veterinary care while contributing to the broader understanding of their wild counterparts.

(This project was made possible, in part, by the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant #MA-249327- OMS-21.)