Inspiration can come from the oddest of places.
For professor Frank Grutzner, PhD, it came from one of Australia’s weirdest animals: the platypus.
Grutzner has spent many years studying the bizarre mammal with a duck-like bill and flippers.
Now, he has discovered the creature has a hormone that may be useful in the treatment of Type 2 diabetes.
“Their biology is absolutely remarkable and different from other mammals… I’m becoming almost obsessed with it,” he told Healthline.
A different kind of animal
Grutzner isn’t a stranger to odd animals, having studied the puffer fish for his doctorate degree, but the platypus has intrigued him from day one.
The first scientists to study the platypus thought the creature was a joke. It seemed like a bizarre combination of a duck, an otter, and a beaver.
The oddness of the creature doesn’t stop at physical appearance either.
The platypus is one of only two mammals that lays eggs. It also hunts by sensing electrical signals in the hearts of its prey.
In addition, it sweats milk to feed its babies, and the male has stingers on its heels that carry venom strong enough to paralyze small animals.
It’s the venom of the platypus that Grutzner, a genetics lecturer at the University of Adelaide in Australia, is particularly interested in.
After analyzing the genes of the platypus, Grutzner and his colleagues discovered that the creature’s venom contained the metabolic hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1).
This is normally secreted in the guts of both animals and humans. It stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin and lower blood glucose levels.
In humans, the hormone degrades quickly.
“These hormones have a really short life… they degrade within minutes. We saw within the platypus that there’s a change in the sequence that would suggest that it’s not degraded, and that was a big surprise because usually in a lot of other mammals you look at, it’s all the same sequence and it all gets degraded,” Grutzner said.
He said it’s possible one of Australia’s most iconic animals could be the answer for more effective and safer treatment options for type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
“We’re hoping hundreds of millions of years of evolution has fine-tuned this molecule. What we’re hoping is it could be beneficial in the disease context,” he said.
The battle against diabetes
In the United States, more than 29 million people have diabetes, with type 2 diabetes accounting for at least 90 percent of diagnosed cases.
Type 2 diabetes is a slowly progressive disease, where a person develops an abnormality in the way glucose (sugar) is metabolized in the body.
“In type 2 diabetes, the body makes some insulin but not enough to keep the blood sugar normal. The body has what we call ‘insulin resistance,’ which means that the insulin isn’t working correctly in the body. This occurs because of inflammation and toxicity from too much fat in the body. This is the reason why patients who are obese are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Rashmi Mullur, assistant clinical professor in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), told Healthline.
Lifestyle changes are among the most powerful treatment options for a person with type 2 diabetes.
There are also medications that work to lower blood sugar levels by either improving the cells’ sensitivity to insulin, eliminating sugar from the body through the kidneys, or by helping the pancreas to produce more insulin.
One of these medications is exenatide, which uses a synthetic version of the GLP-1 hormone.
“It helps people with diabetes by acting in the pancreas where it improves the production of insulin and lowers the production of glucagon (another pancreatic hormone that raises blood sugar), and in the stomach where it slows its motility,” Dr. Samar Hafida, a physician at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Massachusetts, told Healthline.
Exenatide was developed after a discovery similar to Grutzner’s, when GLP-1 was found in the saliva of the Gila monster lizard.
The importance of animals
Dr. Justin Annes, an assistant professor in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, says animals have played a significant role in diabetes research.
“They are critical to every aspect of development. From discovery to validation. We are not able to model glucose physiology without the benefit of experimental animals,” he told Healthline.
Grutzner says there’s no need to be concerned for the platypus.
“Sometimes I get people who are worried we have to hunt down the platypus and get the venom. We don’t have to do any experiments with the platypus itself. It’s really just looking at the DNA sequence,” he said.
Hafida says this latest discovery with the platypus is promising.
“We are learning more every day about the positive effects of the GLP-1 molecule on different organs. A hormone that could withstand elimination in the body could mean easy dosing for people who use this class of medications,” she said.