Scientists in the US have discovered that proteins in alligator blood could be a powerful source of antibiotics for use against superbugs that are resistant to conventional drugs, and for treating serious infections and burns.

The discovery was presented at the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society currently taking place in New Orleans, Louisiana, from April 6th to 10th.

The research that led to the discovery was the work of Dr Mark Merchant, a biochemist at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and co-investigators Drs Kermit Murray and Lancia Darville, both of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and other colleagues.

The investigation is the first piece of research to explore the antibiotic properties of alligator blood in a detailed fashion.

Merchant and colleagues found other potential uses for the antibiotic proteins in alligator blood, including the treatment of a range of infections caused by the yeast Candida albicans, which poses serious problems for patients with weak immune systems, for example people being treated for AIDS or who have received an organ transplant.

In a press statement Merchant said they were “very excited” about the potential of the alligator blood proteins, both as antibacterial and antifungal agents:

“There’s a real possibility that you could be treated with an alligator blood product one day,” he added.

Merchant and colleagues had already shown in previous research projects that alligators have an immune system that is very different to that of humans. It is very strong and helps the reptile to heal quickly, thus conferring a significant survival advantage to creatures that suffer significant wounds during territorial fights.

An alligator’s immune system has the unusual ability of combating microorganisms such as fungi, viruses, and bacteria even if it has not been exposed to them before.

Merchant and colleagues isolated leucocytes (white blood cells that fight disease organisms) from blood samples taken from American alligators and extracted their active proteins.

Under laboratory conditions, small amounts of these active proteins killed a range of bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the highly resistant bacterial that until recently was mostly linked to hospital settings and is now making headway in the community.

MRSA and other “superbugs” are resistant to conventional antibiotics and kill thousands of vulnerable people every year.

Merchant and colleagues also tested the potency of alligator blood proteins against Candida albicans, and found it killed six of the eight different strains of the yeast. In previous studies the investigators had already suggested that these proteins could also work against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The next step is to discover the chemical structure of the alligator blood proteins and establish which ones have the most antimicrobial power. Merchant and his team expect at least four chemicals are involved.

Knowing the exact chemical composition of the antimicrobial agents in alligator blood will help scientists develop experimental antibacterial and antifungal drugs that one day could be applied as creams or taken as pills.

Merchant said he could see these drugs being used as topical ointments.

Patients with diabetes could one day be rubbing “gator-blood cream” onto their foot ulcers, and this might help them avert amputations, said Merchant. Another potential application would be to protect burned skin from infection while it heals.

Speculating on a name for the new protein discovery, Merchant suggested it might be called “alligacin”, and he hoped that if it continues to show the promise it has revealed thus far, it could be on the market within ten years.

The researchers urged people not to try and make their own alligator blood medicines, as unprocessed alligator blood is dangerous and can kill you if injected.

Suggesting that the the blood of alligator relatives like the crocodile may have similar antimicrobial properties, Merchant said he planned to study the disease fighting properties of blood from both reptile families throughout the world.

Source: American Chemical Society press statement: “Alligator blood may put the bite on antibiotic-resistant infections”, 06 April 2008.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD