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12 September 2007

Taronga’s Gila Monster lizard
Photo: Danielle McGill.

Taronga's Gila Monster lizard today helped showcase the release of a new diabetes treatment in Australia that has been synthesized from the lizards venom.

The scaly-backed colourful lizard, native to North America and Mexico, has a specialised physiology which enables it to survive on only three or four meals a year. The gila monster's saliva glands contain a compound called exedin-4 that enables this very slow digestion process.

The new medicine Byetta was developed as a synthetic version of the lizard's saliva compound (exedin-4) and became available on prescription in September. The compound acts similarly to the naturally occurring GLP-1 hormone in humans (glucagon-like peptide - 1).

Byetta can achieve similar results to the human hormone, GLP-1 including enhancing insulin production, reducing the amount of sugar released by the liver and slowing down the emptying of the stomach, allowing sugars and nutrients to be absorbed into the blood slowly. 

With the release of byetta in Australia, people who have been unable to control their diabetes with traditional methods may be able to lead normal lives. And with over 850,000 Australians affected by the disease, the gila monster can rest easy that his work will not go unnoticed.

Gila Monsters have never recorded a fatality although their saliva, which contains the venom, can cause painful swelling and make victims feel very sick.

The Gila Monsters at Taronga are now sponsored by Eli Lilly, th firm marketing the drug in Australia.

Taronga's Gila Monsters can be seen in the Zoo's reptile World exhibit which features a huge variety of reptiles and amphibians from the giant  Komodo Dragon to the Broad-headed Snake which lives in the sandstone outcroppings around Sydney and is facing severe habitat loss due in part to illegal sandstone collecting for gardens.

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