'Superfrogs' lead research effort against infection

Lizard spit, cow pancreas and snake enzymes may not immediately spring to mind as the most palatable of nature's cures.

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Lizard spit, cow pancreas and snake enzymes may not immediately spring to mind as the most palatable of nature's cures. But substances from these three animals, strange as it may seem, have been used to treat millions affected by diabetes and high blood pressure as scientists increasingly search the animal world for cures to our human ailments. Such "pharmazooticals", or drugs derived from animals, may have a new amphibious source to add to their stock, courtesy of scientists in the UAE. As we reported yesterday, if the research of Dr Michael Conlon at Al Ain University proves fruitful, frogs may provide the next medicines to combat bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

In the war against infectious disease, humans have to be continually inventive. Since penicillin was first derived from fungi in 1928, pathogenic microorganisms have become more and more impervious to available treatments. The methicillin-resistant variant of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, plagues health-care centres worldwide. In Abu Dhabi hospitals, the antibiotic-resistant "superbug" known as Iraqibacter, because soldiers in Iraq have been infected with it, has been found to exist at alarming levels.

While Dr Conlon's study demonstrates a considerable achievement in the field of pharmacology, it also has gratifying implications for research as a whole in the UAE. The country has invested heavily in top-tier educational institutions, with the intention of also cultivating a cutting-edge research environment. That goal is now bearing fruit; where it will lead in the future, cannot even be guessed at.

It remains to be seen if samples taken from frogs eventually yield compounds that can be turned into medicines. Yet if new cures are discovered, it is to be hoped that they would also be accompanied by a change in behaviour in prescribing. The plethora of multi-drug resistant bacteria now causing such anxiety are a direct result of decades of misuse of the existing remedies. The best prevention against future superbugs is restraint: reserving antibiotics for when they are truly needed, and not distributing them like sweeties.

There is one more lesson as well. Many of the creatures that might hold the secret to combatting infections such as MRSA, themselves face extinction. Even more reason to take care with the environment.