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 drugs 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 sites logo/symbol.)