Male platypus venom, a potential cure for diabetes?
Male platypus venom contains a hormone that promotes insulin release, called GLP-1. This hormone is also found in humans but degrades quickly. Platypuses make a long-lasting form of it, possibly paving the way to new diabetes treatment. The good news is that platypus GLP-1 can be made in the lab so no platypuses will be needed for it.
The males of the extraordinary semi-aquatic mammal have venomous spurs on the heels of their hind feet. The venom is used to ward off adversaries.
Although powerful enough to paralyse smaller animals, the venom is not lethal to humans. However, it produces excruciating pain that may be intense enough to incapacitate the victim. Swelling rapidly develops around the entry wound and gradually spreads outward.
A clinical report from 1992 showed that the severe pain was persistent and did not respond to morphine.
In 1991, Keith Payne, a Australian Army vet and recipient of the Victoria Cross (Australia’s highest award for valour), was struck on the hand by a platypus spur while trying to rescue the stranded animal.
He described the pain as worse than being struck by shrapnel. One month later, he was still experiencing pain in that hand. In 2006, Payne reported discomfort and stiffness when carrying out some physical activities, such as using a hammer.
But scientists at the University of Adelaide and Flinders University have discovered it contains a hormone that could help treat diabetes.
Known as GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1), it’s also found in humans and other animals, where it promotes insulin release lowering blood glucose levels. It normally degrades very quickly.
Not for the platypus or for echidnas (also known as spiny anteaters) another Australian species found to carry the unusual hormone.
Both animals produce a long-lasting form of it, offering the prospect of creating something similar for human diabetes sufferers.
Lead researcher Prof Frank Grutzer explains why the researchers had decided to look at the platypus and its insulin mechanisms:
“We knew from genome analysis that there was something weird about the platypus’s metabolic control system because they basically lack a functional stomach.”
They are not the only animals to use insulin against enemies. The gila monster, a venomous lizard native to the US and Mexico.
The geographer cone, a dangerous sea snail which can kill entire schools of fish by releasing insulin into the sea, both also weaponise the chemical.
“That’s obviously something that can be powerful in venom,” Prof Grutzer said, though he stressed it was not what had led them to the discovery. “It was really coincidental,” he said.
Prof Grutzer emphasised that much more research was needed before the discovery could, if ever, lead to a human treatment: “An important experiment is going to be putting this it into mice and see how it affects blood glucose levels. That’s certainly very high on our priority list.
“But to get to a drug is a very long journey. We still have to learn a lot more about how this platypus hormone actually works.”