Platypus protein used in diabetes research

  Last updated August 15, 2018 at 4:40 pm

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The shy platypus is put in the spotlight thanks to a special hormone that could be used for diabetes treatments.


Professor Briony Forbes, Head of Medical Biochemistry at the College of Medicine and Public Health.


The discovery of a key metabolic hormone found in the venom and gut of the Australian platypus will be further explored to develop more effective type 2 diabetes treatments.


Medvet Science is funding a new $200,000 study to investigate whether the platypus hormone, as replicated in the laboratory, could be more effective and sustained in action than current medication.


The metabolic hormone is known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). It is normally secreted in the gut of both humans and animals, stimulating the release of insulin to lower blood glucose. A modified form of GLP-1, Exenatide, is widely used for diabetes treatment.


The discovery stems from the sequencing of the platypus genome in 2008. The platypus produces a powerful venom during breeding season, which is used in competition among males.


In 2016, Flinders University medical biochemistry researcher Professor Briony Forbes and University of Adelaide monotreme genome expert Professor Frank Grutzner, published one of the first papers on the topic.


“We discovered conflicting functions of GLP-1 in the platypus: in the gut as a regulator of blood glucose, and in venom to fend off other platypus males during breeding season,” says Professor Briony Forbes, from the College of Medicine and Public Health.


“This tug of war between the different functions has resulted in dramatic changes in the GLP-1 system,” she says.


“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.”


“One of the most amazing discoveries of the platypus genome project was the massive loss of genes important for digestion and metabolic control – these animals basically lack a functional stomach,” says Professor Grutzner.


“More recently we discovered that monotreme GLP-1 has changed radically in these animals, due to its dual function in both the gut and venom.”


Numerous research groups worldwide are investigating different forms of GLP-1 for their effects on metabolic diseases, including diabetes.


“We have privileged access to these amazing animals,” says Professor Grutzner. “Male platypuses produce venom during the breeding season, and can deliver the venom from their hind spurs. We were surprised to see GLP-1 present in venom and think that this may have led to a more effective hormone.


“We already know that their GLP-1 works differently, and is more resistant to the rapid degradation normally seen in humans. Maybe this iconic Australian animal holds the answer to a more effective and safer management option for metabolic diseases including diabetes.”


The effects of platypus-derived GLP-1 are now being explored in detail thanks to a $200,000 grant from Medvet Science, the medical research support and commercialisation arm of the Central Adelaide Local Health Network.


Medvet Science works on behalf of several hospitals in Adelaide to commercialise medical inventions.


The research is a collaboration between the University of Adelaide, Flinders University, Monash University, SAHMRI and the Royal Adelaide Hospital.


“This discovery has the potential to produce significant benefits for human health by bringing industry, leading academic researchers and clinical expertise together,” says Medvet Science’s Managing Director and CEO Mr Greg Johansen.


“This is the first step towards testing the clinical relevance of platypus GLP-1. We believe it’s a project with great commercial potential and an example of the world-class research being conducted right here in South Australia.”




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