Diabetes And The Platypus: What You Never Thought You Needed To Know

The platypus hates sterotypes; it refuses to conform to normal animal guidelines. It’s a mammal but lays eggs. It’s carnivorous but has no teeth. It’s eyes are covered underwater, and it finds its dinner by sensing electrical signals given off by its prey. Platypuses (or platypi, if you prefer) are certainly one of the quirkier members of the animal kingdom.

But it’s the venom in the hind feet of the males that has researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia wondering if platypuses could have a role to play in a new diabetes medication. Skeptical? It’s understandable. Here’s why Australian researchers think that platypus venom could give diabetes a sting.

Photo: AdobeStock/PIXATERRA
Photo: AdobeStock/PIXATERRA

Glucagon-Like Peptide-1 (GLP-1)

Glucagon-like peptide-1 is a metabolic hormone that stimulates the release of insulin, thereby lowering blood glucose. It also enhances beta cell growth and inhibits the release of glucagon (the hormone that turns glycogen to glucose). It’s a vital hormone in every human body, and especially in those with diabetes.

The potential of GLP-1 in treating diabetes is well-known. The type-2 diabetes drug exenatide works as a modified version of GLP-1 to lower blood sugar. At the University of Chicago, researchers experimented with editing stem cells from mice so that they would release GLP-1 in response to a pre-determined stimulus. These edited cells were then used to control insulin levels in other mice. GLP-1 could hold the key to an effective treatment for type 2 diabetes.

Photo: AdobeStock/kasto
Photo: AdobeStock/kasto

Article continues below

Our Featured Programs

See how we’re making a difference for People, Pets, and the Planet and how you can get involved!

So what does this have to do with platypus venom?

The male platypus produces venom during breeding season that they can inject into enemies using spurs on their hind legs. The venom is not deadly to humans, but it is painful. That venom contains GLP-1. In fact, both male and female platypuses produce GLP-1, but because it’s present in both the digestive system (as it is in humans) and in a male’s venom, the GLP-1 found in these creatures is a little different. It’s resistant to degradation, so platypus GLP-1 is longer-lasting than the version found in humans.

Because of the devastating prevalence of type 2 diabetes, researchers at the University of Adelaide have secured a grant to continue their research into a potential drug derived from platypus venom.

Photo: AdobeStock/169169
Photo: AdobeStock/169169

Professor Grutzner, who’s leading the research, thinks that the GLP-1 in platypus venom may lead to a better hormone. “We already know that their GLP-1 works differently, and is more resistant to the rapid degradation normally seen in humans. Maybe this iconic Australian animal holds the answer to a more effective and safer management option for metabolic diseases including diabetes,” he said.

What’s next?

As per usual, more research is needed. It’s certainly not the first time animals have been studied in hopes of discovering better diabetes medications. From cave fish in Mexico to experiments with human-sheep hybrids at Stanford, researchers are open to the idea that animals may help up treat diabetes. And it makes sense—the first effective insulin injections were derived from cows. Could the next breakthrough come from our furry friends from down under?

Photo: pixabay/Maria Grist
Photo: pixabay/Maria Grist

It’s easy (and tempting) to laugh off a potential treatment made from platypus venom, but if it leads to better options for people with diabetes, then we’ll send our hearty thanks to Australia and their duck-billed inhabitants.

Stay healthy, friends!

Support Research

Fund Diabetes research and care at The Diabetes Site for free!