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Killer Eyes: Stopping Infections

Tue, 2013-12-17 13:51 -- llancaster
Scientists use protein found in the eye to kill bacteria found in some infections.
Originally published: 
Dec 17 2013 - 1:45pm
Marsha Lewis, ISTV Contributing Producer

They are known as the window to the soul, each a different color, size and shape. But could your eyes also fight infections?

For years optometrists have been trying to figure out why the human eye is resistant to infection.

“What we know is people virtually never get corneal infections unless they’re a contact lens wearer or unless they have very severe injury to the cornea,” said Suzanne Fleiszig, an optometrist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Researchers recently discovered that proteins in the eye – called keratins – were able to ward off bacteria. To test this, researchers introduced normal cells to bacteria, which predictably attacked and killed the defenseless, healthy cells. But, when small parts of keratin proteins were added, the normal cells lived.  

“It turns out, they were actually killing the bacteria,” Fleiszig said.

Scientists have made an artificial version of a small part of the keratin protein and tested it against different diseases. The proteins destroyed bacteria that can cause strep throat, diarrhea and staph.

Keratins are also used in hair and skin products. Researchers say it’s very likely keratins from other parts of the body, not just the eye, could be used as bacteria fighters as well.  

“We’re hoping we’ll be able to develop some novel antimicrobials,” said Fleiszig.

The keratins could be placed on devices like contact lenses, catheters and ventilators to prevent infection. They could also be taken with antibiotics. The best part is they are already in the body and they are non-toxic.

But, just like with antibiotics, resistance is a possibility.

“We still have to consider that it would be something that we would just use as we need it,” said Connie Tam, biochemist at UC Berkeley.

Further research is needed before isolated keratins can be used to fight bacteria. But it could be a low-cost discovery that might change the way we treat and prevent infections.

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

Get Inside The Science:

Eye Proteins Have Germ-Killing Power, Could Lead to New Antimicrobial Drugs, Study Finds

Fleiszig-Evans Lab – University of California, Berkeley

Suzanne M.J. Fleiszig, University of California, Berkeley

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