x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

UAE scientists look to frog for superbug cure

Disease research has taken a leap forward after UAEU scientists identified 100 new antibiotics from chemicals secreted by frogs.

The foothill yellow-legged frog offers hope for a cure to MRSA.
The foothill yellow-legged frog offers hope for a cure to MRSA.

Research into combatting superbugs has taken a leap forward after UAE University scientists identified 100 new antibiotics from chemicals secreted from the skin of frogs. Biochemists are now screening secretions taken from more than 6,000 frog species worldwide, with one compound from a rare American breed raising hopes of finding a treatment for the deadly infection methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Dr Michael Conlon, a biochemist at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, revealed the findings at the 240th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston on Thursday. He said some of the compounds could be tested on patients in clinical trials within five years. "Frog skin is an excellent potential source of such antibiotic agents," he told the Press Association. "They've been around 300 million years, so they've had plenty of time to learn how to defend themselves against disease-causing microbes in the environment. We only actually use the frogs to get the chemical structure of the antibiotic, and then we make it in the lab." Colleagues around the world have sent Dr Conlon swab samples from the skin of their indigenous frogs. These include rarities such as the Foothill Yellow-legged Frog, which was once common in California and Oregon but now faces extinction and produces a substance that appears to combat MRSA.

Dr Conlon's research has also determined that skin swabs from the milk frog are effective against the superbug Acinetobacter baumannii, which is strongly resistant to several antibiotics and which had infected severely injured soldiers in Iraq, earning it the nickname "Iraqibacter". Dr Conlon's team developed a new approach that involves purifying protein extracts from the compounds and tweaking their molecular structure. The researchers were able to make the frog substances less toxic to humans and more deadly to bacteria. Other chemical changes helped the secretions shrug off attack by destructive blood enzymes. Thursday's announcement made headlines around the world to the delight of UAE University officials. "This is at the forefront of scientific research into this field, and could be a solution to the huge problem," said Dr Mohamed Yousif Baniyas, dean of the faculty of medicine and health sciences at the university. "The university does a lot of research which could make a significant difference to modern problems and we are very pleased that this has been so well received." The university has some 40 research programmes on the go and about 10 of these are focused on combatting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Dr Mohammed Hamad, head of infection control at Lifeline Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said scientists needed to stay focused and work fast to find ways to beat the bugs. "The bacteria are very, very clever and can mutate quickly to become resistant to antibiotics," Dr Hamad said. "We need to just as clever to find ways of getting rid of them." He said he would be following Dr Conlon's research closely. Many of the most common superbugs are prevalent in the country's hospitals but there is no central surveillance system, meaning that the extent of the problem is not fully known. The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi is in the process of establishing an antibiotic resistance surveillance system across the emirate. It could start as early as next year. Dr Anwar Sallam, the deputy chief medical officer at Al Mafraq Hospital in the capital, emphasised that the UAE and region had the potential to play a major role in essential medical research. "We have enough experts for us to actively participate in big trials and research," he said. "We can tell the world what we have in our country and how it is going to benefit both the UAE population and the population of the world." An increasingly active global population and a rise in medical tourism is already prompting hospitals and health authorities to boost their fight against infection. This month doctors in the UK identified the New Delhi-metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM-1) enzyme in patients returning from surgery in India or Pakistan. The potential for worldwide spread of infections caused by the gene, which produces an enzyme that makes bacteria resistant to almost all medication, is "clear and frightening", according to a study in the medical journal. Officials in the Emirates have said the Delhi bug was likely to arrive in hospitals but was not cause for panic. There are no recorded cases so far. Dr Ziad Memish, the former head of the GCC Centre for Infection Control and current deputy minister of health in Saudi Arabia, said the region needed to be prepared to manage the expected increase in superbugs. "NDM-1 is the latest concern," he told The National. "If there are some new antibiotics that we can manoeuvre to combat these newly emerging agents then the whole world will benefit. I don't think NMD-1 will the last one to emerge." Dr Memish addded that the region has "advanced tremendously" in the last decade in terms of science and technology. "Some of the universities in the region are some of the best in the world. We have a great scientific community and I'm sure its contributions will continue." @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae