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Gila monster courtesy of Gila Ranch

Healing Gila Monsters

August 2004

by Will Sansom

Sometimes healing comes from the strangest places. The mouth of a Gila monster would have to rank among the strangest.

Researchers at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association in Orlando, Fla., recently learned about promising clinical trial results of a medication derived from the saliva of the Gila monster, a venomous lizard that inhabits the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. At the end of 30 weeks of therapy, 336 patients who received the medication exenatide in daily injections were found to have more tightly controlled blood sugar levels and also were able to lose weight. Weight gain has been one of the issues associated with other diabetes medications.

Exenatide also seemed to stimulate insulin-producing beta cells, said Ralph DeFronzo, M.D., professor of medicine at the Health Science Center and the scientist selected to present the clinical trial results at the Orlando meeting. "This is important because, even from birth in type 2 diabetics, insulin is overproduced," he said. "The body is not as sensitive to insulin as it needs to be. Early in life, three or four times the normal amount of insulin is produced to try to compensate. Later, as beta cells start to fail, only twice the normal amount of insulin is produced, and this is not sufficient because of the severity of the insulin resistance. The beta cells eventually fail. A drug like exenatide, that can reverse the process, is a most exciting prospect."

Exenatide, a synthetic compound, is patterned after the exendin-4 hormone found in Gila monster saliva. This medication is in the application process for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is being developed by Amylin Pharmaceuticals in conjunction with Eli Lilly and Co.

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Updated 7/30/14