There could be a new way to battle antibiotic-resistant bacteria and it’s been inspired by an unlikely source.
The blood of Komodo dragons.
Researchers at George Mason University have been studying the blood of Komodo dragons in the hope of identifying molecules that cause the animals to have a strong natural immunity.
“Innate immunity is the first line of defense against infection and is highly adaptive to environmental challenges,” Barney Bishop PhD, principal investigator, and associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at George Mason University, told Healthline.
“For example, dragons are known to eat carrion and for at least periods of time harbor high levels of bacteria in their mouths, including potentially pathogenic strains. They do not appear to suffer negative effects from these bacteria,” he said.
Komodo dragon peptides
The researchers, which also included Monique van Hoek, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Systems Biology, sorted through hundreds of peptides in the blood of a Komodo dragon.
Peptides are protein-like molecules and can act on the front line of the body’s innate immune system.
The researchers found more than 200 peptides. One in particular caught their attention due to its antimicrobial properties.
The researchers then rearranged the peptide’s amino acids (a sort of molecular building block) to create a synthetic version of the dragon’s natural peptide that is stronger and more stable. They called it DRGN-1.
“DRGN-1 works in three ways. First, it is antibacterial to the bacteria that were infecting the wound. Second, it has an antibiofilm effect against the biofilm produced by those bacteria — both of these things help remove the bacteria from the wound. And thirdly, DRGN-1 peptide helps the wound to close faster and thus promotes wound healing,” van Hoek told Healthline.
Using nature to fight bacteria
The researchers say although their work focuses on evolutionarily ancient animals like the Komodo dragon, taking inspiration from nature is not a new approach in developing medicine.
“Over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, nature has explored a greater range and diversity of antimicrobial peptides and antibacterial mechanisms than we can hope to explore in the laboratory,” Bishop said. “The search for antibiotics has always involved looking in the natural world for new molecules. The original antibiotic penicillin was discovered in this way.”
DRGN-1 was found to promote healing in mice infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria and the researchers hope it will pave the way for new approaches in tackling antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA.
The research received funding from a $7.5 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to discover new compounds that could defeat antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Initially, the research will be used to help soldiers heal quickly and protect them from bioweapons. But the researchers anticipate the findings could also benefit the general population.
“We think that peptides like DRGN-1 may help treat infected wounds in the future, including battlefield wounds, diabetic foot ulcers, burn wounds, and so eventually could help many people with these kinds of skin infections,” said van Hoek.
Reactions to the research
Lance Price, PhD, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center (ARAC) at George Washington University says it’s too early to tell if this research will be a game changer in the treatment of MRSA.
“One potential problem with using peptide-based antimicrobials from one animal [Komodo dragons] in another [people] is that they could stimulate an immune response that would quickly clear the peptide from the body and could make the person sicker,” Price told Healthline.
“One of my concerns is that even though those antimicrobial peptides isolated from obscure animals such as Komodo dragons may share structure and function with those from humans … using them as drugs could spur resistance to our innate defenses,” he said.
David Weiss, PhD, director of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center, says the findings of the research are exciting.
"In addition to the identified peptides providing a basis for potential novel therapeutics, this work highlights nature as a rich, and in many instances untapped, source of new antimicrobials,” he told Healthline.
“Given the dire state of the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria, all leads must be followed, to ensure we discover novel therapeutics as quickly as possible. Lives depend on it,” he added.