By Nidhi Subbaraman,Nidhi Subbaraman
Keratin--a small protein--is found in grand abundance in animals of all kinds. Keratins are found in the upper layer of our skin, in the tough layers of our nails, and twisted into bundles to form the core of each strand of our hair. Scientists have long understood keratin as a passive biological building block--sturdy, and strong, giving shape and definition to the structures it serves.
But new work suggests that fragments of this protein are doing double duty as warriors, contributing to the ongoing defense of the cornea against bacterial infection and, more importantly, may serve as the building block of powerful new antibiotics.
A team of vision scientists and infectious disease experts at the University of Berkeley discovered bits of the protein in the outer regions of the eye, and surmising a bug-killing power, tested them on a whole range of bacteria. Commonplace villains which cause diarrhea (E.coli) and staph infections (Staph aureus) were snuffed out, and hardier strains which cause strep throat and the flesh-eating disease (Streptococcus pyogenes) were also overcome.
"It really helps us understand why the corneal surface is resistant to infection," Suzanne Fleiszig, who led the study, tells Co.Exist. In fact, she added, "It's possible we've stumbled on a whole system. It could be that they work together as a family." Because the fragments are so small, they can be easily synthesized for study. And when they are better understood, they could one day be cheaply produced in large quantities as antimicrobial drugs.
In their tests, the team found that different fragments seemed to be coordinating to launch an attack together, adapting to the bacterial threat at hand. Fleiszig says she is particularly enthused about the finding that the peptides play well together because it suggests that this new class of drugs could fight bacteria that have developed antimicrobial resistance.
"We maybe able to design drugs where you're not just using one fragment but more than one," Fleiszig says. "If you use more than one together, then you decrease the chance of resistance happening." (With more than one kind of opponent, the probability that the bacteria develop a resistance to the antimicrobial agent falls dramatically.)
At present, several questions remain. It's not quite clear how the fragments enter the cornea, for example, or where they are made. And an early next step will be to understand how they work--separately and together--in killing the microbes they encounter. But this late discovery of a simple soldier in the battle against infection allows for the exciting possibility that there are other fighters, as yet unrecognized, lurking by their side.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.