Eye proteins have germ-killing power: Study

Updated: Sep 25, 2012, 18:46 PM IST

Washington: Proteins in the eye can help keep pathogens at bay, a study has found, paving the way for new and inexpensive antimicrobial drugs.

A team of University of California - Berkeley scientists has found that small fragments of keratin protein in the eye play a key role in warding off pathogens.

The researchers also put synthetic versions of these keratin fragments to the test against an array of nasty pathogens.

These synthetic molecules effectively zapped bacteria that can lead to flesh-eating disease and strep throat (Streptococcus pyogenes), diarrhea (Escherichia coli), staph infections (Staphylococcus aureus) and cystic fibrosis lung infections (Pseudomonas aeruginosa).

These keratin fragments are relatively easy to manufacture, making them good candidates for low-cost therapeutics, the study authors said.

"What`s really exciting is that the keratins in our study are already in the body, so we know that they are not toxic, and that they are biocompatible," said the study`s principal investigator, Suzanne Fleiszig.

"The problem with small, naturally occurring, antimicrobial molecules identified in previous research is that they were either toxic or easily inactivated by concentrations of salt that are normally found in our bodies," Fleiszig said in a statement.

These new small proteins in the study were derived from cytokeratin 6A, one of the filament proteins that connect to form a mesh throughout the cytoplasm of epithelial cells.

"We used to think that cytokeratins were primarily structural proteins, but our study shows that these fragments of keratin also have microbe-fighting capabilities," said study lead author, Connie Tam.

"Cytokeratin 6A can be found in the epithelial cells of the human cornea as well as in skin, hair and nails. These are all areas of the body that are constantly exposed to microbes, so it makes sense that they would be part of the body`s defense," Tam said.

The researchers in Fleiszig`s lab came upon cytokeratin 6A in their efforts to solve the mystery behind the eye`s remarkable resilience to infection.
They noticed that the surface of the eye, unlike other surfaces of the body, did not have bacteria living on it, and that corneal tissue could handily wipe out a barrage of pathogens in lab culture experiments.