The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is a lizard found throughout the south western US and into Mexico, and as their name states, they have a fierce reputation. According to a Native American legend, Gila monsters can spit venom and kill a man with just their breath. But while they’re not the most cuddly lizards around, they can’t really spit venom nor does their breath smell terrible. However, with their venomous bite, they can hold on like their lives depend upon it. Though their venom isn’t fatal, it certainly isn’t comfortable, and perhaps their tenacity is partially to blame for their bad rep.
More than a dozen toxic peptides have been isolated from the Gila monster’s venomous saliva, among which exendin-4. The synthetic version of the hormone, Exenatide, mimics our bodies’ natural hormones that stimulate insulin release when blood sugar rises. The lizard protein is about 50% identical to a hormone released from the human digestive tract that helps to regulate insulin and glucagon and remains effective much longer that the human counterpart. In 2005, the drug was approved by the FDA to treat type 2 diabetes – sustaining glucose levels and progressive weight loss – and is also being investigated for the treatment of obesity, even in children, because it helps suppress appetite and increase feelings of fullness.
The saliva of the Gila monster also contains a chemical that affect memory. Several companies have been researching the abilities of this chemical to help memory loss due to various diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Gilatide, derived from exendin-4, has been shown to dramatically heighten memory in a study with mice. Gilatide is likely to be researched further to provide help to Alzheimer’s patients.