New diabetes medicine from Gila monster saliva causes excitement
September 26, 2006
If we needed another reason to stop the extinction of animals and plants around the world, the new medication derived from the saliva of the giant Gila monster desert lizard may be one.
In three companion articles published Tuesday, September 26, 2006, in The Arizona Republic, Phoenix’s daily newspaper, reporter Connie Midey examined the excitement about a new diabetes medication based on the venomous saliva of the Gila monster.
The creature is native to the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest and northern Mexico, and a protein in its venom is the source for the new medication Byetta, manufactured Eli Lilly and Amylin.
Not to be confused with the hallucinogenic and psychedelic venom of the Sonoran Desert toad, the substance in Byetta is a synthetic form of the protein which is secreted from grooves in the Gila monster’s teeth.
LIZARD SPIT TO THE RESCUE
Midey reported that Byetta is being used with apparent dramatic success in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, a disease that is becoming an epidemic due to obesity.
The Arizona Republic articles noted that the results of two studies, one lasting one year and the other for 32 weeks, were recently presented at the European Association of the Study of Diabetes in Copenhagen, Denmark. The studies were funded by Eli Lilly and Amylin.
Bronx VA Medical Center endocrinologist John Eng discovered the active ingredient in Byetta, called exenatide, in the early 1990s while looking at a sample of Gila monster saliva, Midey reported.
Byetta can lower glucose significantly in people with type 2 diabetes. Some patients have reported that their blood sugar has dropped to normal.
Additionally, many physicians and overweight patients report significant weight loss of from 5 to 60 pounds.
This is leading some people who do not suffer from type 2 diabetes to inquire about prescriptions just for weight loss.
Midey quoted Phoenix physician Gerald Asin who said, "I have patients losing 30, 40, 50, 60 pounds, with hardly any effort. For patients who are obese and have diabetes, this is a wonderful drug."
Midey reported that most health insurance companies are covering the medication for type 2 diabetes under certain medical circumstances.
She noted that Eli Lilly and Amylin launched Byetta in June 2005. Initially, they did not advertise to consumers.
Currently, the medication is fifth of all brand name drugs for diabetes for the amount of new prescriptions written, according to Jamaison Schuler, the companies' spokesman, Midey wrote.
Net sales of Byetta topped $242 million in its first year on the market.
The drug is self-injected through a small needle by the patient using an easy-to-use cartridge-like device. Side effects include nausea, which often subsides after a week or two of use, according to the Arizona Republic articles.
SONORAN DESERT LIZARD IS NO MONSTER
Gila monsters have lived in the Sonoran Desert for millions of years and are one of only two types of venomous lizards known to exist on Earth.
They are the largest American lizards and can grow to two feet long and weigh up to five pounds and have a pink-orange and black spotted skin. They can live up to 30 years of age.
They are not normally aggressive toward humans and will usually react in a hostile way only to defend themselves.
The Gila monster will eat a large meal of small rodents or other food sources, then not eat for months at a time. The creature’s blood sugar remains relatively constant.
Scientists suspect that the metabolism and body chemistry of the Gila monster somehow moderate this “feast and famine” eating pattern, and this contributes to chemicals in the lizard’s venom that are of value to humans in medicines such as Byetta.
In the Arizona Republic articles, Midey quoted Arizona State University veterinarian Dale DeNardo. He is an assistant life sciences professor who has been researching Gila monsters for seven years.
"The (Gila monster's) venom isn't deadly to humans," according to DeNardo. "I've been told it's extremely painful, like having a hammer hit your thumb every five seconds for 45 minutes."
DeNardo indicated that the extinction of species of life forms, now happening at a significant rate, can result in a loss for humans.
"As we've seen with Byetta, if we lose the animals, we lose those discoveries,” Midey quoted DeNardo as saying.