The Golden Goose Award celebrates federally funded research that is seemingly obscure but turns out to have an…

The Golden Goose Award celebrates federally funded research that is seemingly obscure but turns out to have an unforeseen positive impact on society. This year, the prize goes to Dr. John Eng whose discovery of the peptide exendin-4 from the venom of the 2-foot long pink-and-black Gila Monster has provided relief to millions of diabetics. 

From Lizard to Laboratory: In 1990, Dr. Eng was intrigued by research at the NIH showing that venom from some snakes and lizards caused the pancreas to expand, as if they were overstimulated. He noted that the Gila Monster only eats about twice a year,  yet its blood sugar levels were strikingly constant.  The lizard deals with long periods of not eating by slowing its metabolism way down, and then turns it back on like the flick of a switch. He went on to discover exendin-4, a protein naturally found in the saliva and body of the Gila lizard that is remarkably similar to GLP-1, a hormone that triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas. Unlike GLP-1, which has a half-life of minutes, “lizard spit” is long lasting and effective for diabetics who cannot produce enough insulin to control blood sugar. 

A Case for Curiosity Driven Research: The Golden Goose award enjoys bipartisan support in Congress. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) said, “Medicine from monsters and venom may sound like a science-fiction novel, but it’s a real-life breakthrough. Dr. Eng’s research shows that we can’t abandon science funding only because we don’t know where it might lead. Just ask millions of diabetics whose lives have been improved by his discovery.” Exendin’s secrets are still being revealed. More recently, it was found to reduce levels of amyloid beta protein (found in senile brain plaques), and a clinical trial to determine safety and efficacy in Alzheimer’s disease is underway (see

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47 Responses to The Golden Goose Award celebrates federally funded research that is seemingly obscure but turns out to have an…

  1. Great story, and certainly helps make your point, Rajini Rao.  Not all such scientific “adventures” culminate like this one, but that’s the lesson:  we just never know.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Overall, curiosity-driven scientific research offers an excellent return on investment, William McGarvey  🙂

  3. Fascinating, this Lizard is from Australia right? Think quite a few of these venomous reptiles can help in medicine.

  4. I think even Steve Irwin once mentioned about the link with these reptiles and medicine

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    David Dhannoo , I don’t know if it is found in Australia (perhaps Dryade Geo knows?). But it is found in south western US. Apparently, the bite is extremely painful but not lethal. Also, Gila is pronounced Hila..perhaps someone can confirm. 

  6. Hila yeah knew that 🙂 interesting didn’t know it was in America also 🙂

  7. Yes, but this chemical destroys your pancreas in the process. In the immortal words of Liet, “Not finished yet, still have work to do!”

  8. One of the quirks of Spanish, Rajini — the letter “G” in Spanish is pronounced as if it were a English “H”.  Just to continue the point, the Spanish letter “J” is pronounced as if it were an English “H”.

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Robbie Campbell , I would be interested in a source, since the drug has been prescribed to millions. There are side effects, and a few reported cases of pancreatitis have not been linked definitively to this drug. “Examination of the medical records of the millions of patients part of the United Healthcare Insurance plans did not show any greater rate of pancreatitis among Byetta users than among diabetic patients on other medications. However, diabetics do have a greater incidence of pancreatitis than do non-diabetics.”

  10. Sunil Bajpai says:

    Is there much curiosity driven scientific research that was not found useful even after a long time, Rajini Rao ?

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    I didn’t know about the G in Gila monster, William McGarvey and David Dhannoo.

    My name has been “spanishized” to Rahini 🙂

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Also, William McGarvey , the letter Y is pronounced J, no? When I was at Yale, I would chuckle when a Mexican postdoc referred to his time in Jail. 

  13. Dryade Geo says:


    The range of the Gila monster is primarily in Arizona and Mexico, the extreme southeastern corner of California, the southern tip of Nevada, and the southwestern corners of Utah and New Mexico. It is named for the Gila River in whose drainage it is a common resident.

    Gila monsters are desert dwellers, living near washes and arroyos and in semiarid rocky regions of desert scrub or grasslands. Gila monsters also seem to prefer rocky foothills and avoid open flats and agricultural areas. They can live in elevations up to 5,000 feet (1,500 m).” —

    Looks like it is north american – none here outside of zoos 🙂

  14. If it was in Portuguese your name would be ‘Hajini’ as the R is like an H 😉

  15. Rajini Rao Just going on what colleagues say, haven’t seen research, but I work with a nephrologist that I trust and has an IQ worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records (that is the problem with being a nurse, you have to take their word for it because you are too busy to look up every single thing). He is also a research scientist, so his experience may either be more anecdotal or in using the venom for weight loss with no incidence of diabetes. I was thinking of getting my mom in a clinical trial for weight loss using this (she has an artificial hip and rods in her femurs, makes it hard to lose weight), but changed my mind after speaking with him due to the side effects. I have no problems in being wrong (it is just another opportunity to learn) but if you have something better than wikipedia as support, say a pubmed reference, I would appreciate it! 

  16. Ah this why I love G+ always learning something new 😀

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Sunil Bajpai , oh sure! A lot of work leads nowhere- exciting leads fail to reproduce or technical difficulties stymie progress. Basic research is mostly frustrating, a long string of failures interrupted by occasional success. It’s the latter that keeps us going 🙂

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    At least I gave you a Wikipedia page that has 22 references, Robbie Campbell . You gave me none 😉 

  19. Rajini Rao It is a social network my friend, not an academic publication, I was relating my life experience and work experience, no citation available. I understand the need for citation, and I will peruse the wiki citations at a more convenient time. I thank you for the citation, I was just hoping you had a direct link to something regarding venom and weight loss.

    No evil intended on my part, just participating in the discussion as much as I am able as a nurse, you can’t expect me to be up on the latest biochemical research when I spend much of my free time trying to stay current enough to meet government regulatory requirements 😉 

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    Robbie Campbell , because this is a social setting, a casual remark such as, “Yes, but this chemical destroys your pancreas in the process” is particularly devastating. The casual reader has no indication to the credibility of your statement. An entire field of study, chosen by scientists and professionals to be honored with an award, has been carelessly dismissed on the basis of hearsay. I know you meant no harm, and I bear you no ill feelings either, but I do have to intervene to set the balance straight. Hope you (and others) understand. BTW, no drug is without risk. As with all medication, one weighs risks vs. benefits and considers frequency and seriousness of side effects.  

  21. Sunil Bajpai says:

    Rajini Rao while scientific work may involve false starts and dead-ends, that would be eqally true whether curiosity or something else was the motive.

  22. This reminds me of how Senator Proxmire used to award his monthly “Golden Goose” award to silly sounding scientific research. He thought he was promoting a reduction in waste, fraud, and abuse but he was also intentionally exposing serious scientific researchers to ridicule. 

  23. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes, that’s right Sunil Bajpai , good point. I would just note that the majority of research done in basic science departments in academia falls under “curiosity driven research” (including the story described in this post). But basic science is often misunderstood or misrepresented by politicians, for example. There is the famous story of Sarah Palin disparaging “fruit fly research” without her knowing that Drosophila is a major model organism that has contributed hugely to understanding biology from development to disease. 

  24. Rajini Rao says:

    Dennis D. McDonald , Senator Tom Coburn does that too. He wants politicians to review NSF grants and have a say in funding decisions. It’s a scary thought. 

  25. Chad Haney says:

    It’s scary stupid. I worked on a GLP agent for imaging. This is great work.

  26. Rajini Rao says:

    Chad Haney , when you have time tell us about it! Edit: As in “radiolabeled GLP-1 analogues play a potential role in imaging and radiation therapy of pancreatic islet cell tumors as well as in the monitoring of pancreatic β-cell transplantation.”??

  27. Chad Haney says:

    Rajini Rao I just told the story in my re-share.

  28. Rajini Rao says:

    Drew Sowersby , what was the project about? By the way, that’s why I used to love working with yeast..they don’t snap back and smell like beer and bread 🙂

  29. Rajini Rao G+ seems to have missed my post where I corrected myself by saying you were right, I should have qualified my post as “Yes, but I have heard…blah blah pancreatitis” In any case, thanks for your response and I will try to be more questioning rather than definitive in my responses in the future. 

    In any case, please keep me in mind for any hangouts or future real life events since we live in the same state. I am always eager to learn and you seem like a great person to learn from!

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Robbie Campbell . Cheers! 

  31. Rajini Rao says:

    Drew Sowersby , that’s a shame about your experience (as an undergrad, I’m guessing). I feel particularly bad when an undergrad is not satisfied with an internship..not everyone in the lab is a good mentor and junior people can be ignored or marginalized. 

  32. Chad Haney says:

    A bad mentor can really set someone back.

  33. Wonderful scientific story.

  34. Vlad Levin says:

    I think this award is as important in its own way as the Nobel – maybe even more so. I hope it gains wider recognition and prestige!

  35. Chad Haney says:

    Azmi Nazir what does that even mean? You are allowed more than 140 characters.

  36. Rajini Rao says:

    I am pondering the spaces, Chad Haney 🙂

  37. Rajini Rao says:

    You’re right on both guesses, Tom Willingham . But wrong post, though 😉 

    Of course, lizards have proprioception too. 

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Aha, I see that now. Thank you, Tom Willingham .

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    You can debate me anytime, Tom Willingham . I’m here for fun, as no doubt, you are too. I don’t really get a chance to talk about my own research here. 

  40. Don Stoddard says:

    why is it this kind of work isn’t headline news as it should be?.

     If they had stuff like this headlining newspapers I would buy one in a heartbeat. simply superb

  41. Fascinating story and scientific discovery Rajini Rao Thank you for sharing this awesome post. 

  42. Rajini Rao says:

    Wish there were more awards like this andi rivarola 🙂 

  43. Amen to that Rajini Rao 

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