The platypus is arguably Australia's most iconic and strange animal.
It is classed as a monotreme, which is a group of mammals that includes just five surviving species.
It has fur yet lays eggs and produces milk but has no nipples, and it is one of the few mammals that is venomous.
During breeding season, male platypuses produce venom that can be injected into rival males, predators, or inquisitive humans using a spur on their hind legs.
Although not fatal to humans, the after effects of a platypus sting can be excruciatingly painful.
The platypus genome and diabetes
In 2008, researchers first sequenced the platypus genome. One of the researchers involved in that project — Prof. Frank Grutzner, from the University of Adelaide in Australia — is now looking at novel ways to use this knowledge to help treat diabetes.
People who have diabetes are sometimes prescribed a drug called exenatide. This compound is a modified version of the hormone glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), which is naturally secreted in the gut and stimulates the release of insulin. This has the effect of lowering the level of potentially damaging glucose in the blood.
GLP-1 is also found in animals, including the platypus. However, the platypus version is significantly modified. As Prof. Grutzner says, "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."
"More recently," he adds, "we discovered that monotreme GLP-1 has changed radically in these animals, due to its dual function in both the gut and venom."
One key difference between platypus and human GLP-1 is its resistance to degradation. In other words, it has the potential to hang around in the body, continuing to work for longer than the human version can.
"Maybe this iconic Australian animal holds the answer to a more effective and safer management option for metabolic diseases including diabetes."
Prof. Frank Grutzner
The findings have piqued the interest of the pharmaceutical industry; new diabetes drugs can be lucrative. The researchers involved in this project recently received a significant financial boost from the Central Adelaide Local Health Network, which will help them to continue their work.
While there is a great deal of research and development left to be done, the scientists have high hopes. They believe that platypus GLP-1 might one day offer a longer-lasting drug for use in a disease that already affects well over 400 million people, globally.
Could an egg-laying, venomous mammal provide assistance in this worldwide problem?