New York Times by DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. APRIL 17, 2017
Biochemists may have discovered a type of antibiotic that sounds like something out of a fairy tale: It is based on dragon blood.
Scientists from George Mason University recently isolated a substance in the blood of a Komodo dragon that appeared to have powerful germ-killing abilities.
Inspired by the discovery, they created a similar chemical in the lab and dubbed it DRGN-1.
Tests on mice that were given skin wounds infected with two types of bacteria showed that DRGN-1 had three valuable properties: It punched holes in the outer membranes of both gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, it dissolved the biofilms that glue bacteria together, and it sped skin healing.
The researchers’ study was published last week in the journal Biofilms and Microbiomes.
The work was paid for by the military’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, but the discoverers are now seeking drug-industry backing, too.
The race to find new antibiotics has taken on great urgency as more and more bacteria develop resistance to existing drugs. In February, the World Health Organization ranked the most dangerous superbugs, calling for new tools against them.
The study’s lead authors, Monique L. Van Hoek and Barney M. Bishop, study crocodilians and monitor lizards like the dragon because they can survive grievous wounds, including lost limbs, in filthy environments without getting infected.
It is unclear how dragons kill prey, Dr. Bishop said. They have serrated teeth and their mouths teem with bacteria, so it was long believed that sepsis caused by the bacteria weakened their larger victims, like deer.
But in 2009 Australian researchers discovered that the dragons also inject a shock-inducing venom.
Because Komodo dragons are endangered and considered divine in their native Indonesia, the researchers had to find one that lived in a zoo and was under the care of keepers brave enough to take blood samples without anesthesia.
At the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in Florida, they found Tujah, a 100-pound male whose keepers distracted him while about four tablespoons of blood was taken from his tail.
“No dragons were harmed in this process, and we won’t be creating dragon farms to bleed them,” Dr. Bishop said.
Tujah’s blood is a “rich source” of potential antibiotics. Dr. Van Hoek and her colleages are testing more than 40 other substances isolated from it.
Wild dragons might have even more defenses against infection, but the researchers said they were unlikely to find out.
“I wouldn’t turn down wild dragon blood if it was sent to me and I thought it was collected ethically,” Dr. Bishop said. “But I’m not going to go out in the wild to try to get it.”