In the bayous of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, researchers have discovered a potential medicinal breakthrough from alligators.
Alligator blood is showing to be a potent antibiotic in lab testing at McNeese State University.
These keepers of the bayou are known for their tenacity, but behind the alligator's piercing eyes and sharp teeth is an immune system that is as ferocious as the primitive creature.
"They've really put a lot of selective pressure on themselves to develop this tremendous immune system that we've been studying the past 10 or 12 years," said MSU biochemistry professor, Dr. Mark Merchant.
Merchant handles gators like they are his own children. He has been bitten, scarred - but never deterred in his quest to prove what it is that makes gators survive and thrive, even in bacteria and fungi-filled environments.
"I've seen alligators with huge, huge injuries - missing limbs, missing big parts of their tail ... apparently healthy," said Merchant.
To get to the source of the immune response, Merchant and his students started by studying the alligator's blood.
"I took blood from an alligator and I said, 'will it kill these bacteria, can blood from an alligator kill bacteria?'" he said.
There are over 100 young crocodilians in the research space near the MSU farm. Most of them have had their blood drawn before for this immune system study. It is pretty similar to what we see with humans, except that their blood is drawn from the neck, versus what humans have with the arm or wrist.
"We let the blood sit in the lab at room temperature and the red blood cells will begin to settle," said Merchant, "and the white blood cells will stay on top and we can collect the white blood cells for our immune system studies."
In the immune system, the white blood cells are the infection fighters. For this experiment, Merchant isolated the gator's white blood cells and extracted the active proteins.
"We found that the alligator white blood cells were making these tiny, tiny little proteins that have tremendous antibacterial and antifungal activity," said Merchant.
To illustrate the findings, Merchant filled a petri dish with staph bacteria, common in human illnesses, then a well was created in the dish for alligator blood.
"Wherever the alligator white blood cell proteins are, the bacteria is dead," said Merchant, "you can see around the outside, we have a lot of bacterial growth, but right here at the well, we have what's called a zone of inhibition."
Graduate student Nino Falconi has been a research partner with Merchant for the past five years. He said we are at a health crossroads as current antibiotics become less effective.
"Bacteria are coming back and becoming resistant to antibiotics," said Falconi, "so we need to discover new things for treatment."
The gator blood has shown it can kill e-coli, salmonella, strep and staph infections, even a strain of HIV. Now the mission is to determine the exact structure of these potent proteins.
"We potentially could come up with not only a new drug for human and veterinary use, but a whole new class of drugs that works by a completely different mechanism," said Merchant.
Do not try your own home remedy. Raw alligator blood could make you very sick. Merchant said he believes the alligator blood serum could be synthetically made in a pharmacological setting and on store shelves within the next 10 years.
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