Research of alligator blood could one day help humans - KPLC 7 News, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Research of alligator blood could one day help humans

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Researchers at McNeese State University believe alligators could hold the key to healing humans.

At the helm of the study is Dr. Mark Merchant, professor of biochemistry.

Merchant said his interest with gators began at an early age.

"I grew up in the marshes of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas hunting and fishing and I am still in the marsh a lot pursuing those activities. I've been around alligators most of my life," Merchant said.

Merchant said he realized a long time ago that there was something special about the immune systems of these prehistoric animals.

"Alligators and crocodiles are very territorial and they fight and at times, inflict great injury on one another but the fact is it seems they heal rather rapidly despite the fact they live in an environment where there are lots of potentially infectious microbes such as bacteria and fungi and things that can infect these massive wounds," Merchant said.

When his research began 11 years ago, Merchant was able to prove the blood of alligators could kill pathogens. Since then, he has learned more how alligator blood kills bacteria, fungi and viruses, specifically white blood cells.

"What we have found in the last four or five years is that the white blood cells from alligators can and other crocodilians around the world make these tiny peptides that have tremendous antibacterial and antifungal activity," explained Merchant. "We have just recently isolated the small peptides or proteins and are working to determine the exact structure. So we think we potentially may have not only a new antibiotic, but a whole new class of antibiotics for human and veterinary use."

Merchant said there is still a lot of research before the antibiotic can be produced in labs.

"It could be tomorrow. It could be next month or it could be in 10 years. I hope it is sooner rather than later," he said.

Merchant looks forward to continuing to study the animals and believes we still have a lot to learn. 

"I think there is an interesting contrast that these ancient reptiles that have been around for hundreds of millions of years could provide something useful for modern medicine," said Merchant.

Most of the studies have been funded by grants from National Geographic, the state of Louisiana, and the National Science Foundation.

Not all of the studies are for the benefit of humans. Another study also underway is looking at how gator hatchlings react to fire ants.

"Fire ants will crawl up into their nests and they will colonize and then when the babies hatch the ants will mob them and kill and actually eat these baby hatchling," said Merchant.

The comparison study is also tracking the effects on the gator's close relative - the cayman in Argentina.

"Fire ants are actually native to South America and so we know that the cayman have been exposed to these ants for millions of years potentially whereas the fire ants have only arrived here in the southern United States maybe 40 or 50 years ago. So the Southwest Louisiana gators have not been exposed as long and it appears as though they are more susceptible," said Merchant.

Merchant expects to know more results from that experiment within the next three months.

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