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How the giant panda bear might rescue humans from superbugs

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Research from 2012 suggested the giant panda could help humans fight superbugs.

Antibiotic resistance has been a focus of researchers. Superbugs that emerge evade treatment from developed antibiotics when they change cellular structure. Researchers at the Life Sciences College of Nanjing Agricultural University in China have discovered panda bears produce an antibiotic in their blood that can kill both fungi and bacteria.

The scientists tapped into a substance produced by the Panda bear that protects them from infection in the wild when they analyzed their DNA.

The researchers were then able to synthesize the peptide, called cathelicidin-AM.by decoding panda genes.

Dr Xiuwen Yan, who led the research at the Life Sciences College of Nanjing Agricultural University in China, said: “It showed potential antimicrobial activities against wide spectrum of microorganisms including bacteria and fungi, both standard and drug-resistant strains.

Yan explains peptides are a good source of antibiotics because they a less likely to produce antibiotic resistance and work at a cellular level to produce innate immunity against “noxious microorganisms”.

The news is good for humans, for certain. But it’s also good for the giant panda that has been pushed almost to extinction. It’s estimated that there are only 1600 of the bears remaining in the wild. The finding might lead to more focus on conservation efforts.

Yan and his colleagues have been studying antimicrobial possibilities related to innate immunity in plants, animals and other microorganisms. He explains peptides like cathelicidin-AM produced by the panda can act fast to protect against superbugs that are continually emerging.

Bacteria and viruses mutate to develop resistance to antimicrobials through DNA mutation.

Two years ago, scientists at Boston University discovered low doses of antibiotics used in chicken feed or taken by patients to treat viruses can make bacteria stronger.

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Boston University Professor James J. Collins who led the study said: "In effect, what doesn't kill them makes them stronger. These findings drive home the need for tighter regulations on the use of antibiotics, especially in agriculture; for doctors to be more disciplined in their prescription of antibiotics; and for patients to be more disciplined in following their prescriptions."

Even honeybees have become resistant to the antibiotic Tetracycline from routine use of the drug in domestic hives.

Mammals, marsupials, birds and even more primitive vertebrates, such as the hagfish produce Antimicrobial peptides (AMPs). Two of the peptides that are well known are defensins and cathelicidins. Researchers have even studied antibiotic development that could help humans derived from frog skin.

Some animals, such as the dog, encode a single cathelicidin. Cows, sheep and pigs, express multiple cathelicidins that play a diverse role in immunity, including aiding wound healing.

Exploring peptides from mammals and plants is not new. Now researchers are closer to finding ways to help humans fight antibiotic resistant superbugs by understanding how plants and animals fight viruses, bacteria and fungal infections.

“More than 1000 antimicrobial peptides have been found from animals, plants, and microorganisms. Analysis revealed that the panda cathelicidin had the nearest evolution relationship with dog cathelicidin”, Yan said.

Yan and colleagues found cathelicidin-AM directly attacks the cell wall and membrane of bacteria. In their experiments they compared the antibiotic Clindamycin. The authors wrote: “It just took less than 1h to kill all Staphylococcus sciuri at the concentration of 2, 4 or 10 times of minimal inhibitory concentration (MIC) while clindamycin took 6h,” in findings published January, 2012.

Synthetic peptides could also be used to disinfect hospital and clinic surfaces, cutting down on infection spread that easily occurs in immunocompromised patients in health care settings. You can access the original abstract at Science Direct.


Image credit: Wikimedia commons

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