An Adorable Cure for Diabetes

February 13, 2017

The key to treating to metabolic disease that affects more than 20 million Americans may lie inside the stomach of the duck-billed platypus.
There are already many unique things about the platypus, the furry little creatures native to Australia. For example, it’s semi-aquatic, meaning it spends some of its time on land, and some in the water. It’s also one of only two mammals in the world that lays eggs. They’re also outfitted with a unique defense against predators: spurs on their hind heels that emit venom when the animal feels threatened. Add one more thing to the list of platypus quirks: an abundance of a hormone called glucagon-like peptide-1, or GLP-1. It’s one of the ingredients in that foot-poison.
This chemical is found in humans, where the body doles it out in quick doses during the digestion process. It helps the hormone insulin process carbohydrates, thus regulating blood sugar. Diabetics can’t make insulin, but they still produce GLP-1.
Scientists from two Australian institutions, the University of Adelaide and Flinders University, have discovered that GLP-1 is also present in the gut of the platypus. The difference is that there’s is a long-lasting form, as opposed to the short-acting human form. For decades scientists have known that the platypus must have had some kind of metabolism-regulating mechanism in place, as the animal does not have a functional stomach. They’re just now figuring out that the GLP-1 helps a platypus digest and process food, and that they also use it as a way to fend off enemies—it drastically lowers their predators’ blood sugar.
In addition to all of that just being really weird and interesting, this discovery of long-acting GLP-1 in the platypus could lead to major changes in the way diabetes is treatment. If the GLP-1 can be extracted from a platypus and not lose its effectiveness, diabetics may have a new tool at their disposal in their tricky war against blood sugar regulation—and a way to stave off resulting complications of consistently high blood sugar such as blindness and amputation.