Platypus Venom Could Lead to Novel Diabetes Treatment

Platypus and echidna venom contains a stable form of a hormone that could be used to improve diabetes treatment.

A recent study found that platypus venom could potentially offer a treatment for diabetes through the discovery of evolutionary changes to insulin regulation.

These findings show that the same hormone produced in the gut of the platypus to regulate blood glucose levels is also found in the animal’s venom, according to a study published by Scientific Reports.

Glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) is a hormone excreted in the guts of both humans and animals to trigger insulin release and lower blood glucose levels; however, GLP-1 deteriorates rather quickly.

Patients with type 2 diabetes need to take medications that include a long-lasting version of GLP-1 in order to have an extended release of insulin and control blood glucose levels.

"Our research team has discovered that monotremes -- our iconic platypus and echidna -- have evolved changes in the hormone GLP-1 that make it resistant to the rapid degradation normally seen in humans," said co-lead author Frank Grutzner, PhD. "We've found that GLP-1 is degraded in monotremes by a completely different mechanism. Further analysis of the genetics of monotremes reveals that there seems to be a kind of molecular warfare going on between the function of GLP-1, which is produced in the gut but surprisingly also in their venom."

During breeding season, the platypus creates a potent venom that is used against other males.

"We've discovered conflicting functions of GLP-1 in the platypus: in the gut as a regulator of blood glucose, and in venom to fend off other platypus males during breeding season. This tug of war between the different functions has resulted in dramatic changes in the GLP-1 system," said co-lead author Briony Forbes, PhD. “The function in venom has most likely triggered the evolution of a stable form of GLP-1 in monotremes. Excitingly, stable GLP-1 molecules are highly desirable as potential type 2 diabetes treatments.”

The stable GLP-1 molecules are likely the result of many years of evolutionary changes that have created the optimal function, according to the study. These findings show the potential to create novel diabetes treatments that may elicit long-lasting effects.

These findings have also shown true in the venom of echidnas, but there is a lack of a spur to deliver the venom like there is on the hind legs of a platypus, according to the study.

"The lack of a spur on echidnas remains an evolutionary mystery, but the fact that both platypus and echidnas have evolved the same long-lasting form of the hormone GLP-1 is in itself a very exciting finding," Dr Grutzner said.

Additional research is needed to determine how to translate these findings into treatments for humans.

"These findings have the potential to inform diabetes treatment, one of our greatest health challenges, although exactly how we can convert this finding into a treatment will need to be the subject of future research,” Dr Grutzner concluded.