AL AIN // A small team of UAE-based scientists could hold the key to solving two of the biggest medical problems facing humanity: drug-resistant bacteria and diseases caused by overeating.
What is more, a potential treatment for both could come from the same source: poisonous frogs.
The news from UAE University in Al Ain caused a stir in August when Professor Michael Conlon, the research's team leader, told a conference in Boston about the vast potential of frog secretions.
Prof Conlon and his team have tested more than 200 samples from frogs around the world and say the results are extremely promising.
"Not only do frogs produce compounds that will kill bacteria, they produce substances that will regulate appetite and release insulin. This means they have the potential as antidiabetics."
Drug-resistant bugs - "superbugs" - have been on the rise around the world, largely as a result of the over-use of antibiotics. Some strains of bacteria cannot be treated by any known medications.
Using a technique called high-performance liquid chromatography, the team can identify, measure and purify individual components of the secretions they take from the poisonous frogs.
By studying the effects of the frog secretions on the bacteria, the team can identify new ways of treating the bacterial infections.
"Nearly all pharmaceutical agents and drugs are initially based upon naturally occurring substances," he says. "For me, the motivation is that it's worthwhile knowing about the natural world for its own sake. Then we find substances that will be of value to patients with infections."
UAE University's team collaborates with colleagues at a number of other institutions, including the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.
Most of the frog secretions are imported from Japan and North America. Many of the species hail from South America, Australia and Africa. "That is uncharted territory," Prof Conlon says of the African species.
"We have only just scratched the surface of the natural world. There are many, many more potential therapeutic and useful compounds out there."
Prof Conlon first worked with frogs in 1998 in Nebraska. "I have always liked frogs," he says. "The research was in the back of my mind for 10 years before I decided to do the work."
Despite his enthusiasm for his work, the future, he says, is not all bright. "Frogs are disappearing at a very rapid rate because of global warming, pollution and human intervention. Mainly a loss of habitat.
"This is a valuable natural resource that will gone, and once the frog becomes extinct we won't know what we have lost."
Eman Ahmed, a 29-year-old Emirati, is a medical research specialist on the project. She graduated from the university in 2003 and joined the team the following year.
"I love my work," she says. "It's a really interesting topic and I enjoy the practical part of it the most. Every day is different and you get different results all the time."
Ms Ahmed says the best part of her job was knowing that the work could, down the line, save lives. "If we can find a way to fight disease, it is great."
Prof Conlon and his colleagues work mostly on finding compounds to fight bugs, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which resist even some of the strongest antibiotics.
If antibiotics are used in an improper manner, it gives the bacteria a chance to mutate and become resistant.
Acinetobacter bauminaii has also become a focus, due to its global and local prevalence.
A UAE University study, released in June, revealed that the bugwas present in several Abu Dhabi hospitals and its resistance to antibiotics was "particularly high" in some cases.
The bug was nicknamed "Iraqibacter" after infecting severely injured soldiers in Iraq.
"The new superbug which everyone is talking about is the one believed to come from India," says Prof Conlon. However, he adds, "new strains are emerging all the time".
The research has found secretions from the skin of the milk frog that could hold the key to finding a drug strong enough to kill the bacteria.
The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog, once common in the United States, is also believed to produce a chemical that could combat MRSA.
The team has already examined 200 species, not all of which produce biologically active peptides.
The only local species tested, the Arabian toad (Bufo arabicus), which is found in wadis and oases in the UAE, did not yield any useful compounds.
"We have probably got around 20 good candidates for development," Prof Conlon says. "It is really promising."
The work in Al Ain is only the first step. Once certain compounds are proven to be effective against the bacteria, it moves on to the animal testing stage, followed by clinical trials.
Prof Conlon is already on the lookout for ways to take the work forward. "We need a partner in the pharmaceutical industry," he says. "To bring the drug from the laboratory to the pharmacy costs several hundred million dollars. But we have to start somewhere."