Komodo dragons living on the islands of Indonesia are the largest lizard in the world. They are a fearsome apex predator nearly as big as a crocodile which, if you believe the tour guides, regularly take out Japanese tourists for lunch.
Can dragon blood help cystic fibrosis sufferers?
Their saliva contains slow-acting venom and a huge range of nasty pathogenic bacteria, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium commonly found in the lungs of people living with cystic fibrosis (CF).
When hunting their prey, mostly goats and the occasional cattle (hardly any tourists at all), they will often inflict fleshy wounds from rows of sharp, shark-like teeth. These wounds in themselves are not fatal, but are laced with venom and bacteria that quickly poison the poor victim. As the animal eventually succumbs to blood poisoning, it is then eaten by the dragons.
Researchers in the field noticed that even a small wound would quickly become infected, leading to death. Yet Komodo dragons often fought each other and inflicted significant fleshy wounds on each other, but these wounds did not appear to get infected.
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This led researchers from the College of Science at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, who had previously done work on alligators, to speculate that there were some special things going on in the blood of the dragons that was acting as a hugely powerful antibiotic.
Finding new ways of treating bacterial infections is critical not only to people living with CF, but the whole population, as commonly found bacteria develop antibiotic resistance.
On February 6, the researchers at GMU published their findings in the Journal of Proteome Research. They identified 48 substances known as cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs) in the dragons' blood. These CAMPs are found in the immune systems of nearly all living creatures that can fight bacteria. Seven of these were found to be particularly effective in fighting off Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, while one specifically and exclusively targeted Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
The researchers also created a peptide known as DRGN-1. It showed wound-healing ability and the power to bust the biofilms, which our own researchers are working on.
The GMU researchers hope that they will eventually be able to manufacture compounds to fight microbial infections in humans. In the meantime, they must first catch their dragon.