George Mason University

News at Mason

Scientists Look to Natural World for Answers to Medical Problems

March 13, 2012

By Michele McDonald

The blood of this sleepy Komodo dragon, a type of lizard, may have important antibiotic properties. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Mason won a multimillion-dollar contract this month to discover if Komodo dragons and animals in the crocodilian species have bacteria-fighting compounds in their blood that possibly could lead to new ways to fight infection.

“If we are successful, and it’s a long road from here to there, the research would be important to the treatment of infected wounds, for example,” says Joel M. Schnur, a pioneering scientist and research professor of bio/molecular science in the College of Science who is the contract’s principal investigator.

The team can’t wait to start the project, Schnur says. The first stage will be completed in two years. “The important thing is to get the work done,” he says.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) awarded the five-year contract to the interdisciplinary team at Mason. If fully funded over five years, the contract will be worth $7.57 million.

Co-principal investigators are Monique van Hoek, assistant professor in the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases and School of Systems Biology, and Barney Bishop, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Joel M. Schnur. Photo courtesy of Joel M. Schnur

These scientists are studying the natural world to find answers to today’s medical problems, including antibiotic resistance. “These evolutionarily ancient animals have developed special ways to survive exposure to the bacteria in their environment,” Schnur says. “This could provide the basis for new medicines to treat bacterial infections.”

The saliva in the mouth of the largest living monitor lizard, the Komodo dragon, teems with septic bacteria. While the giant lizard’s saliva can harbor strains of P. aeruginosa, S. aureus and P. multocida, the lizard remains healthy even with cuts in its mouth.

Perhaps the blood of Komodo dragons and other monitor lizards have antimicrobial elements that protect the lizard, Schnur suggests. The challenge will be to find molecular species in the blood that are important to fighting infection, gather enough of them to study and then test them to discover if they have antimicrobial properties, he says.

Mason’s interdisciplinary approach is key to the research. Scientists from different disciplines — including nanoscience, biochemistry, microbiology and proteomics — will work together to overcome the challenges of this complex research problem. “The best science is when you get sparks from different disciplines,” Schnur says.

Barney Bishop

Barney Bishop. Creative Services photo

Bishop will use his expertise with biomolecular isolation and harvesting technologies to create a process for capturing and identifying potential antimicrobial peptides from lizard blood. Peptides are small biomolecules composed of amino acids and can have multiple functions.

Antimicrobial peptides can attack bacteria as part of the immune system. In addition to biomolecular harvesting, Bishop studies the relationship between the biophysical properties of antimicrobial peptides and their performance. Bishop says he is eager to take on the challenge of identifying novel antimicrobial peptides, which may lead to future therapeutics.

Van Hoek is developing applications for the newly identified antimicrobial peptides. She has studied a bacterium that causes tularemia, commonly known as “rabbit fever.” The Francisella tularensis bacterium survives in the wild. Humans, especially outdoor enthusiasts, can catch it from ticks or infected rabbits.

There is a darker side to rabbit fever. If tularemia bacteria become airborne (through natural or deliberate means), they can be inhaled and infect a large number of people. She will test the effectiveness of the peptides against tularemia. DTRA is interested in the potential development of new antimicrobials that could be useful against tularemia and other biothreat bacteria.

Monique van Hoek

Monique van Hoek. Creative Services photo

Van Hoek also studies pathogenic bacteria that can infect combat wounds and other skin injuries, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus. She has shown that certain antimicrobial peptides can kill these bacteria and says she is looking forward to studying the new peptides.

“Mason’s research could unlock new treatments for inhaled rabbit fever and wound infections,” Schnur says. “While the DTRA contract specifies the development of antimicrobials for the treatment of combat wound infections and exposure to biothreats, the reach goes beyond the military,” he says.

“It’s not just useful for military applications — it’s everything,” Schnur says. “It could be used in a bandage.”

Schnur has extensive patents and awards, including two Presidential Rank Awards for his scientific work while at the Naval Research Laboratory. Schnur is also the co-inventor of a detection system that can identify at least 70 different kinds of infection, such as influenza and pneumonia, from a simple saliva swab.

Schnur, van Hoek and Bishop will use Mason’s new Biomedical Research Laboratory (BRL) when they test their infection-fighting peptides on bacteria such as tularemia. Many common and dangerous diseases, such as influenza and tuberculosis, are spread through the air. Moreover, biodefense experts believe the greatest bioterrorism threat comes from bacteria, viruses or toxins that can be aerosolized.

A key capability of the BRL is its aerobiology facilities, which will be used to develop and test lifesaving treatments for diseases caused by exposure to airborne biological agents. This specialized facility provides a safe and secure laboratory that protects the scientists and the surrounding community while work on these bacteria is conducted.