Each Halloween season, we celebrate all those spooky critters that give us the heebie-jeebies. But there might be more to cheer for than you realize. Scientists who study these creepy-crawlies are learning ways they may improve human health.
In 1992, John Eng, MD, an endocrinologist working at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bronx, New York, discovered a previously undocumented compound in the venom of the Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum). Named for the Gila River Basin in Arizona, the Gila monster is one of only two venomous lizards in North America.
Eng named the compound he identified Exendin-4. He found that Exendin-4 stimulates the production of insulin, a hormone that helps tissues absorb blood sugar. Maintaining steady blood sugar levels is very important for people with type 2 diabetes, which is a chronic disease in which the body does not manage blood sugar well.
In 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called exenatide based on Exendin-4 to help type 2 diabetes patients. Today, more than 2 million people worldwide take exenatide. Researchers are studying if it might also help people with Parkinson’s disease.
Brazilian Pit Viper
The Brazilian pit viper (Bothrops jararaca) is a venomous snake common in South America. Scientists had long known that the venom of the Brazilian pit viper caused a dramatic drop in blood pressure, but they did not understand how. Then, in the 1960s, researchers working to better understand the venom uncovered a complex system in the human body that regulates blood pressure. Today, that system is called the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system.
This better understanding of blood pressure has paved the way for a class of drugs called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors that work by interrupting the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system. ACE inhibitors are now widely used to treat high blood pressure. In fact, one ACE inhibitor, lisinopril, is the No. 1 most prescribed drug in the U.S., having been prescribed nearly 1.5 million times in 2017.
Just the Beginning
The stories don’t stop with snakes and lizards. Scientists are now studying a compound found in vampire bat saliva for use as a medication to prevent dangerous blood clots. Other researchers are working to refine a powerful pain reliever derived from an underwater snail’s venom. Others are developing artificial spider webs to make strong biodegradable bandages.
So, next time you spot a creepy-crawly, instead of running the other way, thank it for inspiring medical breakthroughs.