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Lizard Spit Drug Treats Type 2 Diabetes

Drug Derived From Gila Monster Saliva Helps Control Type 2 Diabetes
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WebMD Health News

June 7, 2004 (Orlando, Fla.) -- You wouldn't want to meet a Gila monster in a dark alley, or anywhere but the zoo, for that matter, but an experimental drug derived from Gila monster saliva appears to help patients with type 2 diabetes gain control over their blood sugars when other commonly used drugs have failed.

In addition, unlike most other drugs for type 2 diabetes, the new drug, called exenatide, does not cause weight gain and appears to help protect the cells in the body that release insulin.

The results of clinical trials of exenatide were reported at an annual scientific meeting of the American Diabetes Association.

"The reduction in blood sugar and the associated weight loss seen with exenatide is an important combination of effects. With other therapies, improved blood sugar control is often accompanied by weight gain -- and this weight gain can be a significant frustration for people working to achieve better control of their diabetes," says investigator David Kendall, MD, from the International Diabetes Center in Minneapolis, in a news release.

Treats Diabetes Without Weight Gain

Exenatide is a synthetic version of a chemical called GLP-1 that is found in the intestines of humans and in the saliva of Gila monsters. GLP-1 helps the body better use insulin, protects important insulin-releasing cells in the pancreas, and helps the body feel full after a meal.

In an interview with WebMD, Martin Abrahamson, chief medical officer at the Joslin Diabetes Clinic in Boston, says that exenatide and similar drugs in development may have other positive effects on type 2 diabetes.

In type 2 diabetes, the body begins to lose its sensitivity to insulin, an important hormone the body needs to process sugar. The disease also impairs the ability of the pancreas to make insulin. An estimated 90%-95% of the 18 million Americans with diabetes have type 2. Type 2 diabetes, if untreated, can lead to heart and kidney disease, stroke, nerve damage, eye damage, and other serious problems.

Abrahamson tells WebMD that exenatide's positive effects on blood sugar levels, coupled with its apparent ability to preserve beta cells, the insulin-producing cells, are promising.

"What I think may be more interesting with this product, and we need more data to see it, is its impact of this drug on beta-cell number and beta-cell survival," Abrahamson says. "If it's shown to be able to prevent the further loss of beta cells, then the question I would ask is, do you begin to use this earlier on in the onset of diabetes, because we know that when diabetes is diagnosed on average, patients have lost over 50% of beta-cell function."

Good Blood Sugar Control

About 1,000 patients were enrolled in two studies of exenatide, in which patients received either a 10 microgram or 5 microgram dose in an injection twice a day or a harmless placebo injection on the same schedule.

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