Panda blood could hold the secret to the next generation of antibiotics

Pandas aren't exactly renowned for their health and hardiness — if anything, they've earned a reputation as a fragile, sex-averse species that needs constant human conservation just to keep from going extinct. Well, they might be about to repay the favor in a big way, thanks to a powerful antibiotic locked inside their blood.

That's the new research coming out of China's Nanjing Agricultural University, where Dr. Xiuwen Yan and his team have been analyzing the giant panda genome. This analysis of panda DNA revealed a potent antibiotic compound created by the panda's immune cells. They then isolated and synthesized a compound in the panda blood streams. It's called cathelicidin-AM, and the researchers say that it was able to kill dangerous bacteria in less than an hour, compared to an average of over six hours for existing human antibiotics. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Dr. Yan explains the potential importance of this newly discovered compound:

"It showed potential antimicrobial activities against wide spectrum of microorganisms including bacteria and fungi, both standard and drug-resistant strains. Under the pressure of increasing microorganisms with drug resistance against conventional antibiotics, there is urgent need to develop new type of antimicrobial agents.

Gene-encoded antimicrobial peptides play an important role in innate immunity against noxious microorganisms. They cause much less drug resistance of microbes than conventional antibiotics. Antimicrobial peptides are important components in innate immunity – they can provide an effective and fast acting defence against harmful microorganisms. More than 1000 antimicrobial peptides have been found from animals, plants, and microorganisms."

If cathelicidin-AM can work even half as well for humans as it does for pandas, this could be one seriously useful new antibiotic, particularly with the ever-present fear of drug-resistant superbugs. Creating such an antibiotic from the compound is one such goal for Dr. Yan and his team — they also hope to create a new antiseptic from the compound that could be useful in cleaning products, potentially greatly improving general hygiene.

This discovery could also be good news for conservationists. While not everyone is necessarily sympathetic to saving pandas for its own sake, the prospect of still more seemingly miraculous cures and drugs could make people much more inclined to ensure pandas survive. Indeed, this might actually help explain why pandas have continued to survive even when they seem so singularly uninterested in breeding — if nothing else, it would seem it's way harder than we'd imagined to get pandas sick.

Gene via The Daily Telegraph. Image by George Lu on Flickr.