Why The Platypus Could Help Diabetes Research

Posted on 1 December 2016

Credit: The Eggplant/Flickr

Credit: The Eggplant/Flickr

The platypus has evolved a remarkably stable form of an enzyme that stimulates insulin release called glucagon-like peptide-1, which could inform human diabetes treatment Studying other organisms, whether plant or animal or microbial, can often provide inspiration for novel human treatments. After all, it’s easier to copy and modify than create a whole new strategy anew. If nature has evolved a way to deal with a problem, why not take some notes?  In individuals with type 2 diabetes, for a number of reasons there is typically an insufficient stimulation of insulin. This leads to an inability to properly regulate glucose levels – leading to unacceptably high glucose levels after a meal. One of the parties responsible for raising insulin levels is glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). In humans however this enzyme is very short lived and degrades very rapidly.  What can we learn from the platypus? Research at the University of Adelaide and Flinders University on the platypus has uncovered that monotremes (which encompasses the platypus and also the echidna) have evolved an unusual form of GLP-1. 

“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. 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”

In the throes of breeding season, the male platypus produces GLP-1 in its venom. The need for stability in this role has led to a tug of war between its role in insulin recruitment and venom; producing a longer lived protein than seen in other species. The echidna also seems to produce a more stable version of GLP-1 too, despite having different evolutionary influences. 

“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” 

This work is in very early stages, but further study of this unique version of GLP-1 may reveal drugs that can increase human GLP-1 stability or even gene therapy strategies to deliver stable forms of GLP-1 to increase insulin production and combat diabetes.  Read more at Science Daily

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