Alligators are often perceived as a threat to humans, but new science finds these reptiles might someday save a life.
Gators fight for food and mates. They've developed an amazing ability to heal that's evolved over millions of years. Medical researchers are now trying to harness that healing power.
"When they are going through those bouts in the wild, they'll get scratches, maybe lose a digit. But because of their extraordinary immune system, they can heal from those wounds," explained Phil Hillary, manager of zoological operations at Tampa's Busch Gardens.
Researchers wanted to know why. A team from McNeese University found that answer by testing gator blood.
"These ancient reptiles could hold something in their blood that could help modern medicine," explained Dr. Mark Merchant, a biochemistry professor.
Merchant and his team analyzed more than 40,000 proteins found in gator blood over the course of seven years. They finally isolated the one protein responsible for its germ-killing effect.
"A refined extract of their white blood cells has tremendous anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal activity," said Merchant.
Merchant is now trying to replicate that protein, and mass-produce it. It works by attaching to the surface of germs, much like Velcro. It then tears a hole in the bacterial wall, eventually killing the germ.
In the lab, the protein is lethal against deadly, hard-to-treat super bugs like MRSA.
"We have people dying in hospitals today that have systemic infections that 10 to 15 years ago were very treatable, and they're dying and wasting away, and there's nothing we can do about it," lamented Merchant. "I think that fact drives home to me the need for a different class of antibiotics that work on different mechanisms."
"I think it's an exciting time," offered Dr. Doug Holt, USF health professor and director of the Hillsborough County Health Department. "We do have challenges, but we have much more science than we've ever had before."
Merchant and his team are now assessing whether their gator blood is safe for human use. If it is too potent, it could potentially kill healthy human cells along with the germs.
"I don't care how good it is at killing microbes. We have to determine how toxic it is to human cells -- if this kills human cells as well as it does microbes, it's a non-issue."
A drug might be a decade off, still many believe a gator blood cure might be worth the wait.
"A lot of people think of these guys as big dumb reptiles," Hillary added. "To think that they could help us out in the long run and help us out in the medical field, is really cool."