You could say Mark Merchant has alligators in his blood. Before he was a biochemistry professor at McNeese State University studying the antibiotic properties of alligator blood, Merchant was just another Southeast Texas kid fishing with his grandpa on the bayous. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 7:36 PM
LAKE CHARLES (AP) — You could say Mark Merchant has alligators in his blood.
Before he was a biochemistry professor at McNeese State studying the antibiotic properties of alligator blood, Merchant was just another Southeast Texas kid fishing with his grandpa on the bayous.
The Nederland, Texas, man remembers once seeing a huge old alligator that had lost a leg at some point but had healed and gone on to thrive in the bacteria-rich swampland.
But if Merchant so much as scratched his arm in that water, he knew it was likely to get infected.
That told Merchant there was something special about alligators.
He tucked it away in his mind, where it later spawned the idea of using gators to create drugs that would combat infections, particularly those that have become resistant to antibiotics.
More than a decade ago Merchant began studying the immune systems of alligators and crocodiles.
But his relationship to alligators goes way beyond the scientific.
Take Murphy, the 10-foot alligator who lives in a pond inside a fenced enclosure at the McNeese research station where he keeps his specimens.
Murphy, named for Merchant's favorite beer, lurks in a hollowed-out space beneath the bank of his pool, no sign of him visible until Merchant nudges him with a stick to get his attention. Then the alligator's massive head glides into view and his jaws open in a threatening display of jagged teeth.
But Merchant greets Murphy affectionately. At this point, the large gator is more of a teaching tool for reptile demonstrations to schoolchildren than part of the blood research.
"Everybody likes alligators," he told the Beaumont Enterprise (http://bit.ly/11RTZZF).
Asked to speculate why, Merchant said he believes it is because they are powerful, exotic and ancient — like a dinosaur that still walks the earth.
"Crocodilians first appeared on earth 150 million years ago," he said.
He no longer takes blood from Murphy for his research (to keep him in a good mood for when the kids visit). But in a shed he built on the research grounds, he houses the specimens he uses in his research.
In a number of large plastic tubs, several dozen foot-long gators await the day they are returned to the swamp. Nearby are about a dozen Guyanan caimans.
Merchant draws blood samples from the tiny reptiles, a skill requiring finesse to avoid damaging their spinal columns.
A large variety of samples ensures getting results that are representative of the species, and not anomalies.
Merchant catches his own specimens, often with the help of Amos Cooper, head of the alligator program at J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area. His research also has taken him hunting for crocodilians in places like Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, Belize and the African country Gabon.
He collects his specimens in the wild, from eggs, which can be a little tricky to do, what with mama gator guarding her nest. Some distraction is required to divert her attention away from the eggs, and Merchant has no qualms about getting up close and personal with his specimens.
"I'm still a marsh dweller," Merchant said.
Although Merchant clearly enjoys his research and isn't above playing with his alligator specimens, he knows the stakes in his work are very real and very important.
He frequently gets letters from patients with various diseases asking about the possibility of a cure — but none has had as much impact as one he got about eight years ago from a man whose young daughter had an immune system disorder. Her doctors did not expect her to survive to adulthood.
The girl's distraught father studied everything he could to educate himself on the human immune system and inquired about the possibilities of Merchant's research.
Merchant said he carried the letter around with him for years, printing out another copy when the previous one became tattered.
"It was a reminder that we're not just playing here," Merchant said. "This could benefit people all over the world — the work we're doing could have real implications for people with serious diseases."
Merchant knew from what he had seen that the alligator's immune system far surpassed that of humans, so he began investigating the "mechanism of action" behind this phenomenon.
Experiments using alligator serum (a component of the blood that is left after the coagulants and the blood cells are removed) gave an indication that he was looking in the right direction.
A simple experiment of placing a drop of the serum in a petri dish of bacteria demonstrated its powerful effect as an antibiotic by killing all the bacteria exposed to it.
Unfortunately, because of the size of its cells, the serum cannot be safely injected into human blood veins at the risk of anaphylactic shock — the body would recognize it as foreign, triggering a massive allergic response.
However, a drug synthesized to match the serum's chemical makeup could still have topical applications including treatment of burn victims, diabetics, AIDS patients and others who suffer from skin lesions that are difficult to heal, Merchant said.
But the research wasn't over there — they just needed to go deeper.
"We turned our interest to the white blood cells," he said.
They found that a tiny protein or peptide within the white blood cells also acts as a powerful antibiotic.
He and his researchers found these proteins have a strong positive charge. Bacteria have a strong negative charge on their outer wall, so the two are drawn together like magnets.
They bind by electric attraction, and the protein kills the bacteria by rupturing its outer wall.
Merchant believes this is a breakthrough that could lead to "a whole new class of drugs with an entirely different mechanism," though he cautioned "this isn't without potential problems."
There are still concerns about extreme allergic responses, and further testing will be needed to determine its suitability.
The next step is to synthesize the cells to create a drug that can be manufactured based on the protein.
The first attempt to do that was unsuccessful.
"We might have missed something," he said.
Now he and his researchers are collecting more material and "taking a very close look at the fine structure" of the substance to duplicate it.
Merchant cautioned people not to try treating themselves with alligator blood, for instance, by drinking it.
"Bleach kills bacteria, too, but I wouldn't drink it," he said.