May 3, 2005
Gila Monster Saves Lives

Last Friday, April 29th, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug to assist diabetics in controlling their blood sugar levels. The new drug will be sold under the brand name Byetta jointly by pharmaceutical companies Amylin and Eli Lilly.

The drug’s origin is unique. It is a synthetic version of a hormone called exendin-4 found in the saliva (some accounts say the venom) of the gila monster. The synthetic version is called exenatide. The results of some of its clinical trials were announced last June at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association.

Byetta is the first of a new class of drugs, an “incretin mimetic” that mimics the action of a hormone secreted by the digestive system to spur insulin production after a meal if the blood sugar has risen to high levels. The human version of that hormone is destroyed by the body in minutes, making it useless as an external treatment. The synthetic gila monster hormone is enough different chemically that it remains effective in the human body for some twelve hours.

This new drug class comes from the work of Dr John Eng at the Solomon A. Berson Research Laboratory in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bronx, New York. He first discovered a similar hormone in the venom of the Mexican beaded lizard, which prompted him to look at the gila monster where he discovered exendin-4. When the Department of Veterans Affairs declined to patent it because of regulatory limitations, he patented it — paying the costs out of his own pocket — and in 1996 licensed the patent to Amylin. With the FDA approval, it is expected to be available in early June.

The gila monster and the Mexican beaded lizard are the only two poisonous lizards in the world. Both are found in the southwest United States and northern Mexico. (The gila monster is the “critter” that is this site’s logo/symbol.)

January 1, 2007
Diabetes Breakthrough

There was a reason I flagged this December 15 article in Canada’s National Post, even though I didn’t manage to read it until today:

In a discovery that has stunned even those behind it, scientists at a Toronto hospital say they have proof the body’s nervous system helps trigger diabetes, opening the door to a potential near-cure of the disease that affects millions of Canadians.

Diabetic mice became healthy virtually overnight after researchers injected a substance to counteract the effect of malfunctioning pain neurons in the pancreas. [emphasis added]


Their conclusions upset conventional wisdom that Type 1 diabetes, the most serious form of the illness that typically first appears in childhood, was solely caused by auto-immune responses — the body’s immune system turning on itself.

They also conclude that there are far more similarities than previously thought between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes

This research started because one of the doctors noted “surprising similarities” between diabetes and multiple sclerosis, though these diseases should have little or nothing in common. He also noted the presence of an “enormous” number of nerves near the pancreas’ insulin producing cells. His latest research was designed to determine what the impact of actions on these nerve cells might be on pancreatic cell functions. They were stunned by what they found.

Diabetes is a disease we thought we understood. And we thought we understood that there was little or no interaction between the nervous system and the endocrine system. This research shows how wrong we were about diabetes. Now the question is, what other surprises does biology have waiting for us?

Twenty months ago, at the start of May 2005, I noted the approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) of a then-new anti-diabetes drug derived from gila monster venom. (The Mexican beaded lizard was also noted as usable. The gila monster is the “critter” that is this site’s logo/symbol.) That posting came to mind when I read the National Post article because, like the new treatment, gila monster venom works on the nervous system.

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