A Few Good Monsters
Don't be scared, be grateful. The Gila Monster is helping diabetics control blood sugar and lose weight.
This Thanksgiving, Dr. Jim Murphy will be offering his gratitude – to of all things – a venomous lizard.
Murphy, an infectious disease researcher in the Department of Pediatrics at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, credits the Gila monster for his newfound healthy lifestyle. He says the reptile, which has a forked tongue and an appetite for meat, has helped him lose 30 pounds, suppress his sweet tooth and get his Type II diabetes under control.
It’s not as strange as it may sound. Since the new diabetes medication, Byetta (exenatide) became available, many diabetics have been giving praise to the Gila monster – or at least the creature’s spit.
Less than a year ago, Philip Orlander, M.D., professor and director of the university’s Division of Endocrinology, prescribed the new medication to Murphy. Made from a synthesized compound found in the saliva of the Gila monster, Byetta is designed to improve glycemic control. And big bonus: it helps promote weight loss.
“You never know where in nature you are going to find the key to important medical therapies,” Orlander says. “That’s why it is so important to preserve nature.”
Orlander says almost all diabetes medications unfortunately cause weight gain or hinder the weight loss process. So even with unpleasant side effects and inconveniences that Byetta may bring, its weight-loss byproduct has made it quite popular among his patients. “They come in asking for ‘that lizard spit’,” Orlander says.
Orlander says the drug, which is administered twice a day by injection, is approved for patients with Type II diabetes who are not already on insulin.
“It works primarily to control blood sugars after you eat, and it seems to cut your appetite,” Orlander says. “Most patients lose five to 10 pounds, but I’ve seen some patients who have lost much more after going on Byetta.”
Murphy says he is gradually losing his excess weight, and one reason for that is healthier eating prompted by the medication. Other diabetes medications sometimes caused his blood sugar to crash to low levels. When that happened, he would become disoriented. In order to stabilize his blood sugar and regain his ability to function normally, he would reach for something sweet.
While taking this new medication, Murphy says his blood sugar has never dipped to a dangerously low level. As a result, he’s not eating so much junk food. And when he does eat he consumes less.
Love of a good lizard
The Gila monster itself doesn’t require three square meals a day. In fact, it can go all winter without eating. That may have something to do with the large quantity of the compound found in its saliva that is used to make Byetta.
The drug slows normal contractions of the stomach, Orlander explains, so food stays there longer and gives the sensation of fullness. “Because they feel full, patients stop eating,” he says.
Also, the drug stimulates the pancreas to make insulin, but only in the amount needed to control the glucose, so it doesn’t cause hypoglycemia or low blood sugar – a common side effect of other diabetes medications, Orlander says.
“With other medications, patients’ blood sugar will go too low if they try to diet,” he says. “The symptoms of low blood sugar force them to eat, thus negating the effect of any diet.”
Orlander says that while Byetta is as effective in controlling diabetes as others on the market and helps patients lose weight, it does have drawbacks. It can cause nausea and vomiting. The medication has to be refrigerated, and patients have to give themselves injections twice daily and time it with meals.
Murphy says it is worth it, and he expresses his gratitude to the Gila monster, which live in the deserts of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.
“I can’t think of an animal that has done me more good,” Murphy says. “It’s hard to believe that this medicine comes from this creature.”
Orlander says manufacturers are working to improve Byetta, and in the future it may be available in a once-weekly injection or even a pill. Meanwhile, there are a variety of other diabetes medications, including the newly-approved Januvia (sitagliptin), a tablet that enhances the body’s own ability to lower elevated blood sugar.
Orlander recommends that people with Type II diabetes check with their physician to find out which medication is right for them.