Komodo dragon blood: coming soon by prescription?
In Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling wrote that Professor Dumbledore became famous for his discovery of “the twelve uses of dragon’s blood.”
Consequently, when J.K. Rowling toured the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999, a nine-year-old fan asked her what those uses were.
“I have a very good reason for not telling you,” Rowling replied. “The movie script writer [for the first Harry Potter episode] wants me to give him that information for the film. But I can say that the twelfth use is oven-cleaner.”
Unfortunately, we can’t attest to dragon blood’s efficacy in removing the burnt remains of an overflowing casserole from the floor of your oven, but we do know something now that J.K. Rowling didn’t back then.
And this is that scientists at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia believe they’re well on the way to developing a powerful new antibiotic, based on a substance they’ve found in the blood of Komodo dragons.
Now, of course, the Komodo isn’t a true dragon in the Dumbledore sense.
It’s actually the largest species of lizard in the world, growing up to 10 feet (3 m) in length and weighing in at up to 150 pounds (around 70 kg).
But although a Komodo doesn’t exactly breathe fire, it’s still pretty deadly, with razor sharp teeth that enable it to feast on prey as ambitious as water buffaloes.
A Komodo’s favored hunting method generally involves delivering a single bite to its intended meal, then following the poor unfortunate creature around for days, until it drops dead. And gets eaten.
So what’s in a single Komodo bite that leads to this slow, inevitable death?
Well, for the longest time scientists assumed that it was somehow associated with what they believed was a Komodo’s poor oral hygiene.
There was a general feeling that after devouring carrion, those sharp teeth became clogged with rotting meat, providing a home for nasty bacteria.
However, while it’s true that a Komodo has been shown to harbor up to 80 species of bacteria in its oral cavity, this is actually a lower number than is customarily found in humans.
These days we tend to be a species more associated with kilobytes than killer bites.
In addition, the Australian scientist Bryan Fry observed that, after dining, the average Komodo dragon spends 10-15 minutes rubbing its head in leaves, in a flossing-like behavior that apparently leaves its teeth unusually shiny.
What’s more, when Fry examined MRI scans of Komodo dragons’ skulls, he found tiny venom glands in the lower jaw.
So it seems that the Komodo’s deadly bites are down to poisonous venom rather than pathogenic bacteria.
But let’s return to our main story – how those GMU scientists discovered their new antibacterial agent.
There’s huge interest in this field, largely because of the accelerating issue of antibiotic resistance, which currently kills around 23,000 people in the US every year and 700,000 people worldwide.
Moreover, the World Health Organization expects this crisis to worsen considerably, fatally affecting 317,000 a year in the US, and 10 million worldwide by 2050, unless something drastic is done.
This may explain why the GMU scientists’ Komodo work was partly funded with $7.6 million by the Pentagon’s Threat Reduction Agency.
Barney Bishop and Monique van Hoek at GMU have long been interested in studying animals living in what they term microbially challenging environments, kicking off with alligators, who thrive despite hanging out in infested swamps and frequently receiving wounds from fighting other ’gators.
And you thought you had it bad.
So how do alligator wounds heal in such filthy conditions?
Could there be something magic in a ’gator’s blood?
GMU scientists’ preliminary alligator work led them to consider the Komodo dragon, a distant relative of the ’gator.
Needing dragon’s blood, they found it in Tujah, a 100-pound Komodo dragon living in captivity in Florida.
While Tujah was distracted by his keepers, brave researchers were able to extract about four tablespoons of blood from his tail. The blood was then subjected to some remarkable lab work.
Most creatures have substances called cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs) that work as part of the innate immune system.
Adopting an approach known as bioprospecting, the GMU team identified no fewer than 48 potential CAMPs in Tujah’s blood, eight of which were synthesized and tested against two particularly unpleasant strains of bacteria, often considered as “superbugs” – Pseudomona aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus (the “SA” in MRSA).
Remarkably, seven of the synthetic CAMPs showed significant potency against these two pathogens, leading the researchers to conclude that Komodo dragon plasma contains a host of potentially viable antimicrobial peptides, which could lead to the development of new therapeutics.
One of these, aptly codenamed “DRGN-1,” has already been shown to have antibacterial properties in mice.
Every bit as exciting, it also promotes wound healing by accelerating the growth of new skin, which may explain how those ‘gators heal so effectively.
DRGN-1 has yet to be tried on animals other than mice, and human trials may be some way off, but the GMU scientists believe it may have value in defeating the bacteria that cause staph infections, inner ear and burn infections, dermatitis, pneumonia, and cystic fibrosis.
And thanks to its synthesis, the new therapeutic definitely won’t require us to set up Komodo dragon farms.
As for another of those twelve uses of Dragon’s blood, well, Harry Potter fans may recall Hagrid’s application of a slab of bloody dragon meat to stop his face stinging, in The Order Of The Phoenix.
When J.K. Rowling released this, her fifth Harry Potter novel, in 2003, perhaps she was already on to something that we’re only now uncovering.