‘What’s in the box?” I asked Dr. Johnson amid our conversation about what he called “strange sources of human medicine.” He had brought along several examples, including a small wooden box with a handle and what I assumed where air holes.
Having donned a pair of leather gloves, the good doctor opened the box and removed a 10-inch lizard, its stocky body covered with bright pink and black scales and its big head holding a pair of dark, menacing eyes and a forked tongue that flickered in and out like a snake’s.
“Meet Bad Bill,” said the doctor as if introducing a favorite child. “He’s a Gila monster, one of the few species of venomous lizards in the world.”
“Ah-ha,” said I, “another poison, like curare, used as an anesthetic.”
“Nice try,” said he, “but it’s not the Gila monster venom, but its saliva that is used in modern medicine.”
Dr. Johnson explained that the diabetes medicine Byetta is derived from Gila monster saliva. Byetta (also known as exenatide) is a non-insulin. type 2 diabetes injection medication for adults.
“The FDA approved it in 2005,” Dr. Johnson said, “it made Dr. John Eng, who discovered it, a multimillionaire. He had spent more than 25 years working at the Bronx Veterans Administration Medical Center in New York, where he treated thousands of people for diabetes and other hormone-related diseases.”
Much to my relief, my friend returned Bad Bill to his box.
“Bill’s venom has not led to any major scientific discoveries — as yet,” he said, “but some deadly snake venom has.”
He offered two examples:
Eristostatin, a compound extracted from the venom of the Asian sand viper, can help people fight malignant melanoma, by encouraging the immune system to attack the cancer cells.
Hannalgelsin, made from king cobra venom, can be used as a pain-relieving agent that developers say is “200 times more effective than morphine,” and can be taken orally, instead of being injected.
The good doctor began assembling his things as he lifted his pocket watch from a vest and clicked it open.
“I must run,” he said. “But before I depart, let’s go over a couple more examples of strange sources of successful medications.”
He cited Premarin, a drug derived from pregnant horse urine and used in hormone replacement therapy regimens to help lessen the symptoms of menopause and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and osteoporosis.
“Premarin has generated controversy because of issues associated with the industrial use of animals required to produce a supply of the drug,” he said. “Fortunately, the development of generic alternatives has eliminated the need for animal-derived estrogens.”
He then talked about a synthetic stool called RePOOPulate, a “super-probiotic” that can be used to treat gastrointestinal infections caused by the toxin-producing bacteria Clostridium difficile (C. diff).
“There is no effective treatment for recurrent C. diff currently, but transplantation of stool from healthy donors has proved successful,” said the doctor. “RePOOPulate is safer, more stable and adaptable, and has a significantly lower yuck factor.”
My yuck factor had elevated considerably when the good doctor hefted his carpet bag and bid me adieu, saying, “Next time, we’ll discuss parasitic worms used to treat obesity disorders, antioxidants produced from coffee grounds, how broccoli shows promise for treating leukemia, how a substance derived from rooster combs has been used to treat arthritis of the knees, and the zombie caterpillar fungus that shows potential as an anti-inflammatory.”
Recalling my recent encounter with Bad Bob, I can’s say I was sorry to see him go.
Comments and suggestions are always welcome. Call Dan Mearns at 941-893-9692 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.