Bug-Eyed: Visions of Sugarplums Will Dance Unmolested by Germs

One way to see the holidays is as a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with family and friends, to clasp hands and embrace and breathe in the warmth of the shared season. Another way to see the holidays is as a time to get dressed up for infection. All that touching and sweating and breathing, and when you're laid up with a respiratory illness later you remember why you only see your cousin once a damn year.

And since those hand sanitizers aren't getting the best rap these days (active ingredient triclosan having recently been linked to muscle weakness in mammals, among other things), the search is always on for what will keep infection at bay, holidays or not.

Turns out we might've been looking at it this whole time. Or looking through it, anyway.

A study published in October from the University of California at Berkeley suggests that our eyes may hold the secret to fighting germs. The research team, led by Suzanne Fleiszig of the School of Optometry, found that tiny molecules of keratin protein in the eye are really good at killing bugs. When scientists noticed that bacteria don't live on the surface of the eye, they took cultures and found that a particular protein, cytokeratin 6A, alongside combinations of other, smaller protein fragments, killed germs. These proteins are also found in skin, hair, and nails, so they may be working throughout the body to ward off infection.

The eye seems to be an antimicrobial sweet spot. The team created synthetic versions of these keratin proteins and exposed them to bacteria that cause strep throat, diarrhea, and flesh-eating disease, and the protein fragments dispatched them all.

Fleiszig describes the process as a "fishing expedition," looking for the specific proteins among the many kinds in the eye that would ward off infection. She thinks the many different arrangements of molecules in the eye increases immunity to a variety of germs. "We were wondering whether the body had done this on purpose," using different types of molecules to fight infection while preventing resistance, she says. "Some of them killed some bugs, some of them killed other bugs."

The study has opened the door to research into new antimicrobials. But a big fear in developing germ-killers is the problem of drug-resistance and creating superbugs. Fleiszig says they're researching whether the variety of molecules in combination prevents germs from developing resistance.

Mainly she's doesn't want to move too fast. "I'm obviously concerned about the resistance issue," she says. "The last thing we want is for the bacteria to become resistant to our own defense mechanisms." Think about that this warm, hug-filled holiday season.

 
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