SciSun: Oh the Pain   1 comment

In the 1950’s and ’60’s there were a lot of scifi movies about giant, monstrous animals that attacked people: “The Tarantulas that Terrorized Texas”; “The Ants that Ate Albuquerque”; “The Locusts that wouldn’t Leave Lubbock”; “ The Snails that Slimed Seattle”; and so on. Of course all of those stories weren’t true (except for maybe the ‘Lubbock Locusts’. At the right time of year, there DOES seem to be quite a lot of locusts in Lubbock), and none of these animals are giant beasts determined to destroy humans. In reality all species are just trying their best to survive and live in their environment and overcome daily challenges. There is one animal, though, that people find so uncommon and frightening it even has ‘monster‘ in its name: Heloderma suspectum, the Gila Monster. And although they’ve been burdened with an unfair name, this humble desert lizard isn’t hurting people, but actually helping millions in a very unusual way.

There are many plants and animals that produce toxins and poisons. Usually these are in small amounts and only intended to help the species catch its food, or defend itself. A few species create more concentrated amounts of venom that can affect animals in unforeseen, sometimes deadly ways and for thousands of years these species, such as the rattlesnake, scorpion, cobra, and jellyfish have been avoided or unnecessarily destroyed because they’re seen as dangers to people. Gila – pronounced ‘hee-la‘ – an almost two-foot long, wide-bodied, low-and-slow mass of black, pink, and red, looks like he might be one of the most dangerous animals of the Western and Southwestern deserts where he makes his home. But scientists have discovered that the venoms and poisons of many of these creatures can be collected, modified, and artificially reproduced to help people live better lives; including the venomous spit of our friend, Gila.

This special spittle contains a substance named exendin-4, which it turns out can be replicated into a medicine called Exenatide, which helps people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar. (We don’t know who’s responsible for collecting the original spit from the Gila Monsters. Maybe they show the lizard a picture of a really tasty snack and then catch the drool). Surprisingly, scientists have found that in mammals, Exenatide also reduces cravings for food – particularly chocolate – and alcohol. Tests are underway to see if this is just a strange side-effect, or maybe a new way to help people with food and drinking addictions. Another drug based on Gila Monster saliva has been named Gilatide (didn’t see that one coming!), which improves memory and could be a great help to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other types of memory-loss. Scientists are testing these Gila-rific prescriptions, along with many other animal toxins that could one day help, or even heal, millions of people: Scorpion and bee venom that could treat brain cancer; Tarantula venom that could help reduce the effects of Muscular Dystrophy; Cobra venom that reduces arthritis; and others. It’s just shows that despite how much we humans might think something is bad or dangerous, we can’t afford to loose any species due to carelessness or poor choices with the plants and animals of our world.

Gila monster USFS adj

“I don’t like to brag, but the star of “The Giant Gila Monster of Jalisco” was actually my second cousins’ best friends’ nephew. Just sayin”.

Here’s more about how venoms and poisons are helping people:

Posted June 10, 2012 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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One response to “SciSun: Oh the Pain

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  1. Reblogged this on Sea Change and commented:
    Love this – a lizard that’s actually named Monster could one day help humans to manage diabetes, food cravings and even Alzheimers. Just goes to show how wonderful the natural world is, and how we must strive to protect what is left, for the sake of plants and animals themselves, as well as for us.

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