The Future of Diabetes Treatment Could Come From Platypus Venom
Australian scientists have discovered platypus venom contains a hormone that is also found in humans, and which triggers the release of insulin.
Image: Jonas J/Shutterstock
Recent explorations by a team of Australian researchers into the contents of its venom have revealed another stunning trait of the already wonderful platypus: the critter contains an enhanced version of the hormone that regulates insulin secretion in animals' guts, which could offer a new type of treatment for type 2 diabetes. The findings were published this week in the online journal Science Reports.
The hormone, known as Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), usually resides in the gut of humans and many other animals. When blood sugar levels get high, it secretes into the gut and triggers the release of insulin, which in turn lowers blood sugar. GLP-1 is a fast worker and degrades within minutes— usually all the time that's required to adjust blood sugar levels. But that's not enough time to adjust blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, who suffer from higher than normal amounts of glucose, or sugar, in their blood.
Patients can be treated with insulin supplements, but the holy grail of diabetes medicine is to find a way to make GLP-1 last long enough in a patient with Type 2 diabetes so that the resulting longer release of insulin can normalize their blood sugar levels.
Platypuses have GLP-1 in their little guts like humans, but strangely, they also have it in their venom—a discovery made by Australian biologists Frank Grutzner of Adelaide University and Briony Forbes of Flinders University. Male platypuses inject the excruciatingly painful, yet non-lethal venom in each other with sharp heel spurs during breeding season when competition for mates is high.
"These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges"
What function GLP-1 serves in platypus venom is unclear, but this venom form of it is much longer lasting than the kind normally found in the gut.
One other creature, the echidna—the only other egg laying mammal on earth besides the platypus—was found in this study to also have stable GLP-1 hormone in its venom. It too, lives in Australia.
"The function in venom has most likely triggered the evolution of a stable form of GLP-1" in platypuses and echidnas, said co-author Briony Forbes in a statement published online. "Excitingly, stable GLP-1 molecules are highly desirable as potential type 2 diabetes treatments" She said.
"These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges," said co-author Frank Grutzner.
Many different kinds of venom are "milked" harmlessly from snakes and other creatures for use in medicines and it's plausible to think this could be a way to use platypus venom, too. Further research is needed to try and translate this stable GLP-1 hormone from platypus venom to a usable medicine for people afflicted with Type 2 diabetes, but the prospects are exciting.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.