Platypus, echidna venom could help treat diabetes

By Sofia Charalambous | December 6, 2016

The venom of Australia’s iconic monotremes could help researchers come up with a new treatment for type-2 diabetes.

AUSTRALIAN RESEARCHERS have discovered that a hormone produced in both platypus and echidna venom could hold the key to treating type-2 diabetes.

Research led by Professor Frank Grützner at the University of Adelaide and Associate Professor Briony Forbes at Flinders University in Adelaide has revealed that a hormone usually produced in the gut of both humans and animals is actually also found in the venom of Australia’s iconic monotremes, the platypus and the echidna.

The hormone, known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), is produced by all animals to stimulate the release of insulin to lower blood glucose. Typically, it degrades pretty quickly and because of its short life span, it’s not sufficient for maintaining a proper blood sugar balance for people with type-2 diabetes. Medication with a longer-lasting form of the hormone is needed to provide an adequate release of insulin.

However, GLP-1 works a little differently in monotremes. New findings published in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports have revealed that GLP-1 in platypus and echidnas appears to have evolved resistance to the normal degradation seen in humans and other animals. The researchers also found the hormone appears both in the gut and the venom of these animals.

echidna

The venom of Australia’s iconic monotremes, the platypus and echidna, could inspire new medication for type-2 diabetes. (Image: Frankzed/flickr)

The platypus produces venom during breeding season in order to ward off other males when competing for females. Because GLP-1 is an element of the venom being used by competitors, the platypus must develop resistance to the hormone in order to protect itself, as well as continue to process the hormone for its normal function in the gut.

“Our analysis indeed found signatures of this tug of war between the normal function in gut and the novel function in venom,” Frank explained. 

About 1.7 million Australians have diabetes, and type-2 diabetes accounts for around 85% of all cases. Those with diabetes are affected on a daily basis, as are their close family and friends. Although it’s a manageable disease, it is very serious and can be life-threatening.

Dr Tom Grant, an expert in the ecology and biology of the platypus from the University of New South Wales who was not involved in this research, has commented on the unexpected discovery, acknowledging the potential benefits of the findings. “It obviously has possible implications for the management of human type-2 diabetes, once it has tested in animal models,” he said. “As well as this, however, the research gives us further insight into the different molecular evolution in our unique egg-laying mammals.”

“This is a wonderful example of how evolution can act on the same gene with two conflicting functions,” Frank said. “These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges. Although, exactly how we can convert this finding into a treatment will need to be the subject of future research. We already know that the platypus GLP-1 is long lasting in human serum and can trigger insulin release in mouse cultured cells.”

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