AWARDEE: John Eng
SCIENCE: Diabetes Medication Developed from Gila Monster Venom
FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCY: Department of Veterans Affairs
If you have diabetes, be happy that Dr. John Eng took an interest some 30 years ago in the Gila monster. He discovered that the poisonous venom of this pebbly-skinned, slow moving resident of the Southwest United States could help prevent some of diabetes’ most severe complications.
Dr. Eng began his career as a practicing physician and researcher at the Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, working under Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Rosalyn S. Yalow. With research funds from the VA, the two investigated hormones from animals such as chinchillas and guinea pigs.
In the late 1980s, Dr. Eng read studies by gastroenterologists at the National Institutes of Health about the effects of certain snake and lizard venoms on the pancreas, where insulin is produced. Having spent years treating diabetic patients, Dr. Eng knew that maintaining normal glucose levels in diabetics is key to reducing their chances of suffering such complications as blindness, nerve damage, and kidney failure.
The American Diabetes Association reports that in 2011, nearly 26 million people in the U.S. had diabetes. It is the leading cause of kidney failure, and the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults aged 20-74.
Building on the NIH researchers’ efforts, Dr. Eng investigated lizard venoms and in 1992, discovered a new compound in the Gila monster’s venom, which he named Exendin-4. The compound stimulates insulin-producing cells in the pancreas to produce more insulin when glucose levels are high, thus keeping the body’s blood sugar levels at a steady, normal level while minimizing the risk of levels going too low, compared to an insulin shot. To gain notice for his discovery, Dr. Eng submitted a poster at the American Diabetes Association annual meeting, where he caught the attention of a small biotechnology company, Amylin Pharmaceuticals.
The new drug, exenatide, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2005, and has proved to be a treatment that helps diabetics manage their chronic condition. Today that medication, marketed as Byetta, has been prescribed to millions of people with diabetes. It is a valuable addition to therapies for diabetics, helping them to manage their blood sugar levels and reduce the risk that they will suffer from the disease’s most severe complications.