Gila Monster Venom and Diabetes

Some diabetes management techniques can be, metaphorically, wild. Very rigorous diets, specific regimens for each day, medications, and other managements can become a lot to handle. Another possible management is, literally wild - gila monster venom. This isn’t a magical elixir, nor a snake-oil cure-all, it’s a human peptide analog; found in the venom of a wild lizard. Before you go out trying to find a lizard to bite you, that’s not necessary nor advised. This article is a wild one; pun intended!

What is a gila monster?

The gila monster is one of just two species of venomous lizards in North America. It is native to the southern United States and Northern Mexico region, and despite growing to be about 2 feet long, they aren’t much of a monster to worry about considering how sluggish they are.1 Their venom is, however, about as potent as a diamondback rattlesnake and the bite can be brutally painful, though almost never fatal. Luckily, you don’t need to hunt one of these down and have it bite you to manage your blood glucose. Why? Science.

The medical component of gila monster venom

Venom is a mixture of components that make up a caustic cocktail, causing a multitude of things to happen in the intoxicated victim. This sparks the interest of research biologists who care to sort out the many bioactive parts. It just so happens, that the gila monster produces an excruciatingly painful cocktail, made of incredibly helpful components. The components in a gila monster’s venom have been isolated and used to observe significant medical treatments for chronic conditions.2 The one we will focus on today is called 'exendin-4’.

Gila monster venom turned diabetes treatment

In April of 2005, the FDA approved the type 2 diabetes medication, ‘Exenatide’, featuring a synthetic version of exendin-4 as its primary active ingredient.3 Exendin-4 is a hormone that mimics a hormone in humans, GLP-1, that regulates blood glucose, but exendin-4 has a longer half-life than GLP-1, making it helpful for type 2 diabetics managing their blood sugar.4 It’s amazing that within something so damaging, there are still lights of goodness. Cheesy? Perhaps, but poetically accurate.

Not all diabetics choose to or need to use medication to manage their blood sugar. Although those that do need the help of medication should have options. Discoveries from venom research provide new doors to new options. Exendin-4 was certainly unexpected, yet welcomed. Its discovery has helped create, not just new medication, but a new direction for research into what other secrets venoms might hold.

The path of science

On occasion I hear the question, "When will there be a cure?", a devastatingly un-answerable question for most chronic conditions. However, I think of how far we have come in medicine over just a few generations. The advancement of our knowledge is exponential, as is our technology. As our understandings grow, so do our ideas of how to interact with ourselves and our environment. Discoveries like the gila monster venom give me hope, that among all the wild chaos of our plant, there are answers to the most wildly complex problems.

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