Ticks could be . . . life savers?

A protein derived from the insects could help combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Scott Bauer/Wikimedia Commons

Scott Bauer/Wikimedia Commons

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To the general public, ticks are nasty, repellent, disease-bearing creatures to be avoided as diligently as possible. Yet, as Yale researchers have recently determined, the same tick that can transmit infections to humans may become the source of a substance that could save lives.

A team led by Professor Erol Fikrig, chief of the Infectious Diseases Section at Yale School of Medicine, showed that a protein derived from ticks may be useful in combating the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control notes that at least two million Americans are infected each year with these dangerous microbes.

In experiments in vitro, as well as with infected mice and flies, Fikrig’s team combined a tick antifreeze protein called IAFGP with various antibiotics currently used to treat MRSA (Staphylococcus aureus). MRSA is a particularly virulent and resistant staph infection that causes 18,000 deaths in the United States each year. Staph bacteria like MRSA resist treatment because they secrete a protective layer—a protein biofilm—that prevents our immune systems and medications from destroying them.

But the researchers had found in a previous study that IAFGP interferes with the process by which strands of molecules are linked together to build the biofilm. And when they combined the tick protein with the antibiotic, in each case, it helped the drug to kill the bacteria. “The protein enhances the effectiveness of medications by altering the biofilm, improving the permeation of the antibiotics into the cell,” Fikrig explains. (The study was published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.)

While this study focused primarily on combating MRSA—and human trials are still in the future—Fikrig hopes the strategy can be further developed and used against a range of infections that are, or could become, resistant.

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