If looks could kill

Ever wished you had Superman’s laser vision? If so, your wish is about to be granted – sort of.

Photo by Zach Eades.

Scientists at Berkeley College have discovered proteins in the human eye with powerful germ-fighting capabilities. It turns out that fragments of keratin protein in the eye play the important role of protector, warding off and killing infectious microbes. What makes the discovery even better is that researchers were able to create synthetic replicas of the guardian protein that were capable of taking down bacteria leading to a wide variety of nastiness, including:

  • flesh eating disease
  • strep throat
  • diarrhea
  • staph infections
  • cystic fibrosis lung infections

Suzanne Fleiszig, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry (and the principle investigator in the study) gushed about the possibilities. “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,” she said.

As if that wasn’t enough good news, the keratin fragments are inexpensive to manufacture, and could result in low-cost therapeutics.

Study lead author Connie Tam explained that the germ-fighting keratins are derived from cytokeratin 6A, which can be found in our skin, hair, nails, and – you guessed it – corneas. While scientists traditionally regarded cytokeratins as primarily structural in nature, researchers weren’t necessarily surprised to discover the antimicrobial properties. “These are all areas of the body that are constantly exposed to microbes,” Tam said, “so it makes sense that they would be part of the body’s defense.”

Photo by Zach Eades.

The scientists happened upon cytokeratin 6A while trying to discover what makes the human eye so remarkably germ-resistant. Fleiszig explains, “It is very difficult to infect the cornea of a healthy eye. We’ve even used tissue paper to damage the eye’s surface cells and then plastered them with bacteria, and still had trouble getting bacteria to enter the cornea. So we proposed that maybe there are antimicrobial properties that are unique to the eye.”

In order to ascertain that cytokeratin 6A is indeed responsible for the eye’s exceptional hygeine, researchers used gene-silencing techniques to suppress the protein’s expression in the corneas of mice. Without this protection, the amount of bacteria on the corneas increased to five times its previous amount.

The scientists suggested that further research might reveal even more keratins built into the body’s defense system. The detailed study will be published in October in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.