Belfast Telegraph

Accidental find that could rank with discovery of penicillin

By Lisa Smyth

In 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming made a chance discovery which led to the development of a drug credited with saving countless lives around the world. By accident, he noticed that mould he found on a piece of laboratory equipment killed bacteria it came into contact with - and so was born penicillin, one of the best known and widely used antibiotics of the 20th century.

Now a team of scientists from Northern Ireland has also made an accidental discovery which could prove equally as significant, as their findings suggest they have uncovered a potential treatment for up to 70 life-threatening medical conditions.

Queen's University of Belfast researchers made the discovery while carrying out tests on venom collected from amphibians, including the South American Waxy Monkey Frog and Asia's Giant Fire-bellied Toad.

The Queen's scientists travel to far flung destinations around the world to gather samples - venturing into the natural habitat of frogs, toads, snakes and scorpions to collect their venom.

The process is harmless to the creatures and the venom is placed in storage to allow it to be returned safely to Northern Ireland where the scientists can undertake their research.

The team is constantly searching for new medical treatments from the natural world and decided to examine the effect of proteins extracted from various samples of venom on human cells. They could never have imagined the far-reaching consequences of the tests.

Professor Brian Walker, a scientist involved in the research, said: "It shows that you have to keep an open mind.

"We are constantly carrying out tests and sometimes they produce incredible results."

Not only did they discover a protein which stimulates the growth of blood vessels, but they also identified a second protein which inhibits the growth of the same vessels.

Both processes are key components when it comes to fighting disease and repairing damaged tissue.

Professor Walker continued: "These proteins are in the venom on the skin which the frog and toad use to ward off predators. If a predator is stupid enough to attack and tissue is damaged, we believe these proteins are used in the repair process.

"We think one of the proteins switches on the repair process and the second process switches it off when it is complete."

Professor Walker said the findings reinforce the significance of the natural world.

"There are many examples where we think we have developed something for the first time but if we look very closely we will probably find nature has already done it," he continued.

"It is very exciting. We have such a large collection of venom that we are making incredible discoveries almost on a daily basis. It is so important we protect the natural world."

While the venom from both amphibians are actually toxic to humans, the proteins by themselves are completely harmless.

The scientists have also developed a technique allowing them to create proteins in the lab - a relatively inexpensive and easy procedure which can take a day.

It is hoped work can get under way to develop the proteins into a drug. The team at Queen's believe trials could take just five years to complete.

Depending on their outcomes, the financial rewards could be astronomical.

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