Scientists researching potential medical applications of vampire bat venom have hit an unexpected hazard – drug traffickers.
A team led by Bryan Fry from Australia’s University of Queensland is looking to take advantage of the species’ highly specialised feeding habit.
Like other animals that consume blood – fleas, for instance, or leeches – vampire bats (Desmondus rotundus) secrete a substance that prevents the blood of their victims coagulating, ensuring a smooth outwards flow.
The researchers wondered whether the substance – technically, a venom – might also have other properties that could be useful in a medical context.
In a paper published in the journal Toxins, Fry and colleagues reveal the existence of a class of peptides that have the potential for use in the management of blood pressure.
One of these compounds, in particular, is remarkably similar to one called human calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which functions to dilate blood vessels.
The scientists extracted the peptide from the bats and tested its effect on rats. They found that it very efficiently prompted contracted arteries to relax.
“The peptides are mutated forms of the Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide (CGRP), used by our bodies to relax blood vessels,” Fry explains. “The peptides from the bats are unusually selective in their mode of action, making them even more therapeutically useful than the CGRP, as they have fewer side-effects.
“This could potentially help doctors in the treatment of a range of disorders featuring heightened pressure in small blood vessels, or may be able to improve blood flow to damaged or transplanted tissue such as skin grafts.”
The research is thus very promising, but is now facing a major problem – specifically, in sourcing further vampire bats.
“We can’t access our original field site in Mexico anymore, because we’re told that region has been taken over by drug traffickers,” says Fry.
The search, thus, is now on to find another suitable vampire colony in an area that is not overrun by heavily armed narco-terrorists.
There is no truth to the rumour that Fry and his colleagues are also working on developing a television series called Breaking Bat.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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