Platypuses Making a Splash in Diabetes Research

In Brief:

  • 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.”
 
Platypuses Making a Splash in Diabetes Research
 
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.

 


SCIENCE STAR

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.


Works Cited

  1. Forbes, Briony. Telephone interview by the author. August 2017.
  2. 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.
  3. “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.

Image Credits:
Feature Image:

  1. Platypus by Matt Chan (Edited). License: CC BY-ND 2.0
  2. Underwater by Unknown (Edited). License: CC0 1.0 

Story Image:

  1. Platypus by LA Hall (Edited). License: CC BY-ND 2.0

Chief Editor: Aparna Ragupathi
Creative Team Manager: Sreya Das
Team Editor: Manasa Gadiraju
Team Graphic Designers: Lucia Tian, Aparna Kumar


This article was written by Andrei Grovu. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cSw Editorial Staff

Andrei Grovu

Author: Andrei Grovu

My name is Andrei and I’ve been a writer for cSw for the past three years. I’m currently a junior in high school who is interested in science and technology. Writing for cSw has been an invaluable experience that has allowed me to grow and broaden my scientific knowledge, writing, and communication skills by working with amazingly passionate mentors and researchers. Outside of school, I am interested in developing software, competing in public speaking competitions, and playing volleyball. I hope you enjoyed my article and remember to always be curious!

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6 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating bit of research and you do an excellent job synthesizing the importance of the research in a way that is easily understandable.

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  2. Good work Andrei! GLP-1 is one of the latest blood sugar lowering agents, also used for weight control as well. So, this new natural source of GLP-1will play an important roll in the future of the medicine.

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  3. This is a very fascinating bit of research by Dr. Forbes and her team. Andrei you did an excellent job of making this research accessible to the wider non-scientific community. Thanks for bringing this research to our attention.

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  4. Very interesting article. Great job Andrei.

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  5. Bravo Andrei !!!.
    A very clear and interesting presentation.

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  6. Interesting article, Andrei.

    I do hope that the research will help and GLP-1 can be used on people.

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