- A synthetic version of exendin-4, a hormone found in Gila monster saliva, can be used to treat patients with type 2 diabetes.
- Exenatide, the synthetic form of exendin-4, helps patients control blood sugar levels.
- In the future, exendin-4 may be used to treat devastating memory ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A Dangerous Dilemma
Overweight and a big TV fan, Fred has type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes. He has too much sugar in his blood, a chronic condition that can cause him a slew of health problems. Although he is under the care of an endocrinologist, tries to eat wisely and exercises regularly, Fred still can’t control his blood sugar levels. Treatments like insulin injections and pills are not helping, and his family worries that over time he could develop heart problems, go blind or even lose a foot. (“Infographic: A Snapshot of Diabetes,” 2014). By synthesizing a hormone that helps the Gila monster regulate naturally occurring fluctuations in its blood sugar levels, a biopharmaceutical company has developed a treatment that can boost the quality of life for over 28 million Americans like Fred with type 2 diabetes.
The Gila monster is a large poisonous lizard native to the American southwest and northwestern Mexico. This slow-moving reptile only eats five to ten times a year. It stuffs itself when food is available yet can control its blood sugar levels during the long periods of time between meals. In the early 90s, an endocrinologist and research scientist named John Eng discovered a hormone in the Gila monster’s saliva similar to one in the human digestive tract that keeps blood sugar levels from spiking or dropping too low. He named the hormone exendin-4 and began exploring its tremendous potential as a treatment for type 2 diabetes. The result is a synthetic form of exendin-4 called exenatide. (http://www.diabetesincontrol.com/contact-us/5139-)
How It Works
Developed by a biotech company, exenatide is delivered by injection and works by increasing insulin production after a meal; this rise in insulin helps lower blood sugar levels. Once blood sugar levels are closer to normal, exenatide causes insulin production to abate, preventing levels from becoming too low.
Not only does exenatide help control blood sugar levels, it reduces appetite and helps to control food cravings. Furthermore, exenatide has a rapid anti-inflammatory effect, which may lead to the inhibition of atherosclerosis, the major cause of heart attacks, strokes and gangrene in diabetics. (University at Buffalo, 2011).
Looking to the Future
Studies exploring additional uses for exendin-4 are on-going. Results are promising for developing treatments for a number of neurodegenerative diseases, including Huntington’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Clinical drug trials for memory-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease are also underway.
Given the different ways that exendin-4 is improving the lives of people with type 2 diabetes and its great potential for treating devastating neurological disorders, the Gila deserves a medal for its monster contributions to modern medicine. (http://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/features/exendin-4-lizard-laboratory-and-beyond)
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