What’s more amazing than kissing a frog and finding out it’s still a frog and didn’t turn into a handsome prince? Perhaps it would be better if we just took that frog and scraped off a bit of the mucus layer that covers his skin and finding in it a potent weapon against influenza. This is what scientists from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia have done in discovering an antimicrobial peptide on the skin of Hydrophylax bahuvistara, a species of frog native to southern India. What they found could treat a relentless scourge and sickness that has existed since the dawn of man and kills as many as half a million people around the world each year, especially in developing countries where antibiotics are expensive.
In the film of secretions that protects the frog’s skin from deadly pathogens, scientists have identified a string of amino acids that completely destroys a wide swath of influenza A viruses, and all the while doing no harm to healthy human red blood cells. This discovery was reported on Tuesday in the journal Immunity, and will face many challenges before it can become an actual influenza medicine. But its novelty is a potential source of strength against flu viruses that have begun to develop resistance to existing antiviral and antibiotic medications.
To illustrate how deadly and intelligent the flu scourge is, each strain of the flu is named for its particular combination of two surface proteins: hemagglutinin, of which there are 18 known varieties; and neuraminidase, of which there are 11. The most common form of seasonal influenza has the H1 version of hemagglutinin, along with the N1 version of neuraminidase. In laboratory experiments, the frog peptide wiped out every type of H1 flu that was tested. The current version of H1N1 flu that came out in 2009 with the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic combined viruses from pigs, birds, and people. When the virus first emerged, humans had limited immunity against it, but public health measures and good luck conspired to protect humans from disaster.
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However, scientists fear that, in the absence of a wide-spectrum weapon against flu, humankind may not be so lucky next time a new strain appears. There’s no shape-shifting prince in this story; however, the discovery is actually a deadly sword: the Emory team has named the virus-killing peptide “Urumin.” That moniker is derived from the word urumi, the deadly three-pronged ribbon sword used by skilled practitioners of Kerala Kalari Payat, sometimes called the “mother of all martial arts.” Kalari warriors, who would wear this fearsome weapon around their waists, originated from the same province in Southern India that is the native habitat of the frog Hydrophylax bahuvistara. The discovery is a reminder of the value of preserving biodiversity as a source for new human drugs.