Reptile Revelation; Lizard Enzymes Used to Produce New Medicine, Hope for Diabetics

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Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Gila monsters are giving new hope to diabetes patients.

A medication derived from enzymes found in the lizards' saliva, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, could mean those with the chronic condition can lead healthier lives.

The drug, called Byetta, is just one of several advances for those with diabetes.

Roughly 18.2 million people in the United States suffer from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 1.3 million new cases are diagnosed annually in people ages 20 and older. It's a chronic condition in which the body struggles to break down sugar in the bloodstream because of an inability or problem with producing insulin.

Dr. Michelle Magee, director of the Medstar Diabetes Institute with the Washington Hospital Center in the District, says Byetta is a breed apart from existing medications.

"It makes you feel like you're full. It depresses appetite and slows down how the stomach empties," Dr. Magee says.

Existing medications often result in weight gain, so the switch is significant for those with type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes means the patient has stopped making insulin, often during his or her childhood years. Type 2 typically occurs later in life, although with childhood obesity levels rising, it can occur earlier. Patients with type 2 diabetes can make insulin, but their bodies use it improperly or sometimes not at all. The condition typically is found in adults older than 50, says Howard Steinberg, CEO of DLife, a consumer resource for people with diabetes.

Mr. Steinberg, who learned he had diabetes at age 10 and has been aggressively fighting the condition for the past 37 years, says the current medical marketplace offers more hope for fellow patients than ever before.

"It's a very liberating time," Mr. Steinberg says.

From the invention of medical insulin in 1922 to the 1980s, few advances were made for diabetics, Mr. Steinberg says. The '80s, however, saw the development of analog insulin created through recumbent DNA, a move that allowed for faster-acting and longer-lasting treatments. The decade also featured the birth of home blood-glucose testing kits, which until then hadn't been available to the public.

The ability to measure one's glucose levels illustrates how diabetes is different from many other chronic conditions, Mr. Steinberg says. A diabetic's health is completely dependent on self-measuring and modifying behavior, he says, adding that patients are only as good as the tools they have to do that.

Mr. Steinberg's DLifeTV network, programming aimed at the diabetic community, produced a special called "The Story of Insulin," which details the condition's history. It will air at 7 p.m. Sunday on CNBC and at various times on both DirecTV and Dish Network. For the latter, check www.dlife.com for air times.

The Gila-inspired medicine is part of a new wave of drugs for type 2 diabetes patients called incretin mimetics, according to the American Diabetes Association. It's a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone that lowers blood glucose levels by increasing insulin secretion.

The medication represents a collaboration between Amylin Pharmaceuticals and Eli Lilly and Co.

The medicine is injected roughly an hour before breakfast and dinner via a pen-type applicator.

Dr. John Holcombe, a medical fellow at Lilly research laboratories in Indianapolis, says a Bronx, N. …