The medical community has a long history of looking for potential treatments in unlikely places. Researchers from Australia and the U.S. now believe that crocodile blood may contain powerful antibodies that could be used to protect humans from serious infection.
The man-eating reptile is known to lose limbs in territorial fighting, but it rarely dies of disease. That sent scientists on a mission to find out why.
Mark Merchant, a professor and biochemist from Louisiana, collected blood from crocs to see if the antibodies could be isolated and reproduced for a potential drug for humans.
“If it went on the market we wouldn’t isolate them from crocodile blood, we would synthesize those,” he said. “We determine the structure of that molecule and we can even play games with that molecule, maybe to make it more effective, but the base molecule is in the white blood cells we think of as the saltwater crocodile.”
Dr. Adam Britton believes the antibodies could be used to make a new class of antibiotics, namely those used to treat flesh-eating bacteria.
“Don’t expect to go down to the chemist in the next few months and see, you know, ‘crocodilian’ that you can take as a tablet,” Britton said. “But when you do finally see something on the shelves – and hopefully we will in the future – then you can be safe in the knowledge that Northern Territory crocodiles were a big part of that equation.”
Antibiotic resistance has been a growing concern in the medical community. It is caused by the accelerated use of antibiotics and poor infection control.
But the crocodile antibodies could provide a much-needed remedy to this problem by making antibiotics more effective when it comes to treating disease.
Several pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and abroad are now investing heavily in new antibiotic treatments, including those that use crocodile blood.
Crocodile researcher Grahame Webb would like to see the Northern Territory government in Australia get more involved, considering the area is a notorious breeding ground for crocs.
“Could it be something where we could do something very pivotal? Yes, I think we could,” Webb explained. “We’ve got lots of crocs. We’ve got lots of knowledge about the crocs. We’ve got all sorts of variables we can work with up here.”
While Australia has become a leader in crocodile research, the territory itself hasn’t allocated any funds to the project.
“It’d be just lovely if people here were interested in taking on some honors projects,” Webb added. “You need post-graduate students to get involved in this type of stuff and do some objective tests. Because there just may be more uses to this thing than everyone realizes and we’re in such a classic position to do it if we can spark the interest.”
But he noted that funding for these kinds of projects has become increasingly scarce in recent years.
“We had a massive research presence, we were really leading the world,” he said. “But then the political machinery sort of decided ‘Oh no, no more research’. That’s how we had to separate ourselves and try to keep research going privately. Which you know in the end it’s very, very difficult.”
After several years of research, Merchant says he was finally able to isolate a small protein in the white blood cells of alligators that can be used to kill bacteria and fungi.
“We think that they can be used as a new source of antibiotics for human and veterinary use,” Merchant said. He confirmed that several companies are working on similar initiatives, but he declined to specify which ones.
He pointed to several promising studies in recent years that highlight the protein’s healing properties, including one published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology that found compounds extracted from crocodiles were effective in acne treatment and an article from the Journal of Infectious Diseases and Immunity, detailing how farmed crocodiles were being used to develop human vaccines.
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