TEMPE, Ariz. — Just a few years after scientists learned how to synthesize Gila monster venom into an anti-diabetes drug, it appears that Heloderma suspectumare may be headed for extinction.
In the 1980s, researchers discovered that poisonous Gila monster venom contains the exendin-4 protein, a substance that is chemically similar to glucagon, a protein in humans that triggers glucose release.
Doctors then developed a back-door treatment for diabetes: instead of manipulating insulin levels, which is the traditional approach, researchers theorized that the same results could be achieved by manipulating glucagon levels, and there would also be fewer side effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Byetta in 2005.
Gila monsters are indigenous to New Mexico and Arizona, where they spend about 95 percent of their time burrowed underground. Scientists are unsure how many of these creatures still exist, given the presence of humans in their natural habitats. Furthermore, since the Gila monsters are so stationary, any forced relocation would probably be fatal.
The loss of the species would be a shame, because the Gila monster’s venom may have other applications, according to Arizona State biologist Melissa Sayres.
Sayres has started a crowdfunding project to sequence Gila monster DNA.
Byetta Side Effects
People who have been exposed to Gila monster venom report an incredibly painful burning sensation that is almost debilitating. As a result, it is little wonder that Gila monster venom, once it is injected into the bloodstream, has been repeatedly linked with pancreatitis, one of the most painful medical conditions. This is especially true since glucagon focuses on the pancreas and liver.
In early stages of pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas, patients experience nausea, vomiting, and pain after eating. Later, the pain becomes more constant and radiates to the back. Eventually, the pain becomes so severe that victims have difficulty sitting. At this point, pancreatitis may have life-threatening consequences.
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