POSTED: Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 11:30am
UPDATED: Thursday, March 7, 2013 - 11:34am
NBC NATIONAL NEWS — Alligators are known for their tenacity, but behind their piercing eyes and sharp teeth is an immune system that is as ferocious as the primitive creature.
Biochemistry professor Mark Merchant handles gators like they're his own children. He's been bitten and scarred, but never deterred in his quest to prove what it is that makes gators survive and thrive, even in bacteria and fungi-filled environments.
"They've really put a lot of selective pressure on themselves to develop this tremendous immune system that we've been studying the past ten or twelve years," stated Merchant. "I've seen alligators with huge, huge injuries - missing limbs, missing big parts of their tail – that are apparently healthy."
To get to the source of the immune response, Dr. Merchant and his students started by studying the alligator's blood.
"I took blood from an alligator and I said, 'Will it kill these bacteria? Can blood from an alligator kill bacteria?'"
There are over 100 crocodilians just in Merchant’s research space. Most of them have had their blood drawn before for this immune system study. It's pretty similar to what we see with humans, except that their blood is drawn from the neck, whereas we see it in the arm or wrist.
"We let the blood sit in the lab at room temperature and the red blood cells will begin to settle and the white blood cells will stay on top. We can then collect the white blood cells for our immune system studies."
In the immune system, the white blood cells are the infection fighters. For this experiment, Merchant isolated the gator's white blood cells and extracted the active proteins.
"We found that the alligator white blood cells were making these tiny, tiny little proteins that have tremendous antibacterial and anti-fungal activity,” said Merchant. “Wherever the alligator white blood cell proteins are, the bacteria is dead. You can see around here, we have a lot of bacterial growth, but right here, we have what's called a zone of inhibition."
The gator blood has shown it can kill E. coli, salmonella, strep and staph infections, and even a strain of HIV.
Now, Merchant’s mission is to determine the exact structure of these potent proteins.
"We potentially could come up with not only a new drug for human and veterinary use, but a whole new class of drugs that works by a completely different mechanism."