It sounds like the recipe for an elixir from some kind of medieval fantasy novel: to cure your illness, draw blood from a dragon — but it's not far from reality.
Scientists from George Mason University have discovered that blood from the world's largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, contains protein fragments that seem to have antimicrobial properties capable of slaying some of the worst infections on Earth. The team hopes to develop new drugs based on these proteins that can counter the scourge of antibiotic resistance, reports Science Alert.
A bite from a Komodo dragon is not necessarily venomous, but it can still be deadly due to the noxious mix of dangerous bacteria known to inhabit its mouth. These bacteria help dragons to take down larger prey that they can't subdue with strength alone, but it's been a mystery as to how the lizards are able to avoid infection from these bacteria themselves.
The key, it turns out, has to do with protein fragments known as cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs) that George Mason researchers found in the dragons' blood. CAMPs of some variety are found in most living things; they work as an essential part of our innate immune system.
"It's that part of your immune system that keeps you alive in the two or three weeks before you can make antibodies to a bacterial infection," explained biochemist Monique van Hoek. "It's part of your generalized immune response to the world."
The CAMPs found in Komodo dragon blood were particularly extraordinary, though. Of the 48 that were identified, 47 of them were derived from histone proteins, which are known to have antimicrobial properties. The team then selected eight of these 47 CAMPs for testing against two of the nastiest kinds of superbugs out there: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA). Incredibly, seven of the tested peptides killed both forms of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
How CAMPs are so effective against such robust forms of infection is still poorly understood, but future studies are on the way.
"Future efforts will focus on determining whether peptides are constitutively produced or the result of pathogen detection, as well as whether this phenomenon is limited to Komodo dragons or if it occurs in other species, including humans," the team wrote in their paper, published in the Journal of Proteome Research.