- Type 2 Diabetes is one of the most common chronic illnesses in the western world
- GLP-1, a digestive hormone, may help researchers develop a more long-lasting diabetes treatment
- Dr. Briony Forbes is studying how GLP-1 functions in platypus venom
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a comical, egg-laying mammal from Down Under with a beaver’s body, a duck’s bill, and a sharp, venomous spur on each hind leg. But, according to Dr. Briony Forbes and her team at the University of Adelaide, its anatomy may not be the most interesting thing about the platypus. Through their research, Dr. Forbes and her team have discovered that platypus venom has evolved to contain a digestive hormone called GLP-1 that may hold the key to a long-lasting diabetes treatment.
With obesity on the rise in western society, it’s no surprise that type 2 diabetes is a growing problem. Type 2 diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body cannot properly break down sugar because of insulin resistance. Insulin is a key hormone that serves as a chemical messenger, signaling specific cells to help regulate blood sugar levels. In type 2 diabetics, insulin is produced but cells are unable to receive or interpret the message, failing to properly regulate blood sugar. Type 2 diabetics may also suffer from insufficient insulin production, preventing them from overcoming their insulin resistance. Normally, the GLP-1 hormone stimulates the release of insulin, but once produced, it only lasts for about 2 minutes before it is broken down. In type 2 diabetics, this is not enough time to overcome insulin resistance.
So, how did the platypus find itself in the spotlight of diabetes research? According to Dr. Forbes, her team was drawn to this animal for a very a specific reason: “[Platypuses] are the first diverging mammals. From them, we get a really good snapshot in time as to the evolution of mammalian species and how mammalian biology has changed over time.”
It turns out that scientists can learn a lot from a unique GLP-1 hormone found in the platypus. Even though this hormone is common in mammals, it functions differently in the platypus: an evolutionary difference that may be attributed to the fact that platypuses are venomous. Researchers hypothesize that platypus venom evolved to incorporate GLP-1 to alter the metabolism of rival males stung during breeding season combat and, as a result, platypus GLP-1 is more stable and longer-lasting than human GLP-1. “Finding a stable form of GLP-1 in the platypus’s venom and gut was quite unique,” Dr. Forbes remarked. “We weren’t expecting that, we just thought that all species would have their GLP-1 controlled in the same way. This led us to try to understand other mechanisms of metabolic control in monotremes [a group of egg-laying mammals including the platypus] which may provide us with clues of how we can find new drugs.” With the discovery of a long-lasting form of GLP-1, scientists may be able to create new treatments for diabetes.
Additionally, according to Dr. Forbes, GLP-1 may also have other capabilities. “We know that it affects cardiovascular function and appetite control,” she says. “There are several other aspects in addition to its ability to stimulate insulin production, which we think have potential.” While GLP-1 research has come a long, much remains to be discovered. But, with the help of the platypus, GLP-1 could be making a splash in medicine sooner, rather than later.
Dr. Briony Forbes received her Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide in biochemistry. She has held postdoctoral positions at the University of Adelaide, Discipline of Biochemistry and at CSIRO Division of Human Nutrition. She is interested in science that can change society and have positive impacts on the lives of others. She is passionate about the science of metabolism, insulin, and diabetes, as well as the biochemistry of cell signaling in cancer.
- Forbes, Briony. Telephone interview by the author. August 2017.
- Tsend-Ayush, Enkhjargal, Chuan He, Mark A. Myers, Sof Andrikopoulos, Nicole Wong, Patrick M. Sexton, Denise Wootten, Briony E. Forbes, and Frank Grutzner. “Monotreme Glucagon-like Peptide-1 in Venom and Gut: One Gene – Two Very Different Functions.” Nature. November 29, 2016. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep37744.
- “Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 June 2017, www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/index.htm.
- Platypus by Matt Chan (Edited). License: CC BY-ND 2.0
- Underwater by Unknown (Edited). License: CC0 1.0
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