Question Your World: Can The Platypus Help Fight Diabetes?

Posted: May 31, 2017

Occasionally science gets to experience some pretty bizarre discoveries. Medical scientists recently found a very interesting new lead on fighting type 2 diabetes from the land down under. Can the duck-billed platypus help fight diabetes?

Usually, when one thinks about medical breakthroughs, the notion of a new process, creative chemistry, or groundbreaking tech innovations pop to mind. However, our Earth is a beautiful place and still filled with mysteries for us to solve. A great example of this is the recent discovery from Australia that has experts in the field of diabetes paying close attention.

Let’s start with the basics. We all have a hormone in us called Glucagon-like peptide-1, or GLP1. The function of this hormone is to help regulate our body’s blood sugar. We can find GLP1 in our guts and also in the guts of most mammals. As the body changes over time so do the impacts of blood sugar levels on our vitality. GLP1 is used to regulate these changes. The problem though is that this hormone degrades very quickly. It’s produced, does its work, and then deteriorates rapidly. For some of us this translates to needing supplemental help like insulin shots.

Now, what does all of this have to do with the duck-billed platypus? Well, all the way over in Australia, some medical scientists just stumbled upon the most interesting discovery. The duck-billed platypus also makes GLP1 for its gut like most other mammals. This version is short-lived and acts just like the ones we are used to seeing. However, it makes an alternative version of this hormone as well. The alternative GLP1 for the platypus won’t be found in its gut, but instead you’ll find this version in the spurs. The spurs are where this strange creature makes and stores its venom, and the GLP1 hormone there is very stable!

Image credit: Getty Images

Now, this is a brand new discovery and still has many steps to go through before even being considered a safe option for patients with type 2 diabetes. Regardless, this is the first step in the journey of exploring a new discovery. This would not be the first time that something seemingly dangerous has been converted into a positive use for us humans. Rattlesnake venom has a component called Crotoxin. This is a toxin that scientists have used to track down and destroy specific tumor cells in cancer patients. There have been many examples of how using spider venom can help patients dealing with chronic pain as well by suppressing the nerves involved with sending pain signals to the brain. There are even cases in which scientists have worked with tarantula venom to help open up cell membranes to deliver medicine in patients. Mother Nature plays a role as a secret medical practitioner, apparently. 

This discovery about platypus venom hormones is still brand new and needs to undergo a lot more testing before any practical application can be used. However, for those dealing with type 2 diabetes, this is a very interesting story to keep a track of and see how it unfolds in the near future. This is an excellent example of how our natural world still holds many profound processes that we have yet to find. The duck-billed platypus is one of the many animals in Australia that could be in jeopardy if humans alter the balance between nature and our human-made world. A loss of this species would be a big set back for those exploring the many uses of its natural hormone capabilities. These discoveries are very important and often expensive, but worth the price and effort when you consider the millions of people worldwide that are dealing with the daily struggles of type 2 diabetes.

For right now more testing is underway to hone in on the many details involved with this procedure. From WebMD to Web-footed MD, today’s science landscape is truly amazing!