Scientists develop a potential antibiotic from Komodo dragon blood

Sarah Newey
·4-min read
A Komodo dragon in Indonesia  - Reuters
A Komodo dragon in Indonesia - Reuters

Komodo dragon blood may hold the key to tackling the “looming crisis” of antimicrobial resistance, according to scientists behind a potential new antibiotic, DRGN-6.

The synthetic molecule, developed by experts at George Mason University in the United States, was created by combining two genes found in Komodo dragon blood - an endangered species found on five Indonesian islands. 

In preclinical tests DRGN-6 killed carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae, a highly drug resistant bacteria which causes a particularly aggressive form of pneumonia. 

In the US alone, roughly 8,000 people are infected each year with the “superbug” and close to 600 die, while the only antibiotic that still has limited impact against the bacteria has substantial side effects, including liver damage and loss of hearing. 

Finding new drugs to tackle the infection has been labelled as ‘critical’ by the World Health Organization. In a discovery that sounds like something from a science-fiction film, experts believe reptiles could offer the solution.

The cold-blooded species can survive severe wounds, including lost limbs, without getting infected - despite the filthy environments they live in. 

Komodo dragon's mouths are also teeming with more than 80 strains of bacteria, some of which cause blood poisoning or sepsis in bitten humans and animals, but the dragon itself is not affected - suggesting they have some sort of immunity. 

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“Snakes and alligators and Komodo dragons are evolutionarily ancient, which means that they are very successful at surviving the nasty bacteria-filled conditions they live in,” Monique Van Hoek, associate director of research at George Mason University's School of Systems Biology, told The Telegraph

“Humans evolved along one line of evolution, reptiles a different one,” she added. “So their immunity is likely different… and protects against different bacteria. We thought there was a good chance of finding a new backbone peptide to develop potential antibiotics.” 

Prof van Hoeks team, collaborating with her colleague Barney Bishop, published their first research three years ago, after gaining small samples of reptilian blood from an Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in Florida. 

Their 2017 paper found that another synthetic molecule based on dragon blood, DRGN-1, promoted the healing of wounds infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus (also known as MRSA) in mice. 

The latest research, published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology, identified DRGN-6 as a promising candidate for a seperate superbug. In preclinical trials the molecule killed Klebsiella pneumoniae in test tube experiments and proved safe to use in waxworms. 

Prof van Hoek said the discovery was a “critical first step”, but it could take a decade for any potential antibiotic to reach the market. 

She added that tweaks to the molecule, a process known as “rational design”, would be needed to improve DRGN-6 - particularly to ensure it does not damage red blood cells. 

But the promising research comes amid growing concerns that the coronavirus pandemic has diverted attention and resources away from antimicrobial resistance (AMR). 

Predicted deaths from superbugs, 2014 to 2050 - AMR
Predicted deaths from superbugs, 2014 to 2050 - AMR

Speaking at the World Health Summit this week, Dr Timothy Jinks, Head of Drug Resistant Infections Priority Program at the Wellcome Trust, said that while billions have been poured into the development of vaccines and treatments against Covid-19, the same sense of urgency has not seen with AMR.

“The ecosystem to support antibiotic research and development is in crisis,” he said. “The fact is that we do not have a system that is sustainable for supporting the discovery, invention, and development of the new antibiotics that we need as drug resistant infections are expanding throughout the world.”

Despite the looming crisis, AMR is seen as less of a priority because it is a “silent killer”, added Thomas Cueni, Director-General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.

“The problem is Covid-19 frightened us like a tsunami does. We were put in lockdown. All of us have personally experienced it. [But] AMR is the silent killer.

“We need to move the narrative. [AMR] could hit you. It could hit your children. It could hit your wife,” he said. “It could take us and if we don't do something about it, our society will be much poorer.”

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