Zasloff knows animals can protect themselves with antimicrobials because of a happy accident of his own. While conducting research using frog eggs at the National Institutes of Health in the 1980s, Zasloff noticed that the sutures on the female frog abdomens, following ovary removal, healed without becoming infected, even in their non-sterile tanks.
"In their skin, these animals stored high concentrations of powerful antibiotics of a particular type -- antimicrobial peptides," Zasloff said.
These compounds, evolved since the beginning of life on Earth, can be far more effective than conventional antibacterial medications because they recognize microbe membranes rather than microbial proteins and enzymes. Altering the membrane to develop resistance is far more difficult for bacteria and fungi than altering a protein.
Cases where this system fails and the body overreacts to microbes results in illnesses like Crohn's disease or cystic fibrosis.
Based on the antimicrobial proteins he found in frog skin, Zasloff completed a large phase three clinical trial on diabetic patients who get diabetic ulcers on their feet to see if a topical antimicrobial ointment would be effective against those infections. The trial was successful but the FDA requested another study on the ointment in the absence of other drug use by the study subjects. Zasloff put further experiments on hold but said a private company has taken charge of further experiments.
"But this is the most advanced of the drugs," Zasloff said. "It is one of those drugs that is moving forward."
You can find them in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics -- Napoleon Bonaparte once decreed that all hospitals could not be without them and they even helped save limbs during the Vietnam War.
This ancient medic of the animal world has been used by man for thousands of years; it also happens to be a slimy bloodsucker that can eat ten times its own body weight in blood.
Today, medicinal leeches are used after severe trauma to help reattach digits, close wounds and help mend skin after plastic surgery.
There are approximately 650 species of these fresh water worms but only one, Hirudo Medicinalis, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for medical use.
The approved leeches are the perfect size -- unlike Amazon leeches which would take more than their fair share of blood. It has just the right biting mechanism: three jaws with hundreds of sharp teeth that feed on the surface of the skin. They also secrete anti-coagulants which helps keep the blood flowing.
And it's this combination of adaptations that makes them perfect for saving limbs and skin.
"If you have a thumb that is reattached, the doctors will repair the arteries, tendons and muscles but the little veins that carry blood back to the circulatory system are damaged and traumatized," explained Rudy Rosenberg Sr. of Leeches USA Ltd., a medical leech distributor. "The blood pools in the reattached thumb and has nowhere to go, so you put the leech on the limb to suck out the extra blood until the veins redevelop."
Venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper, also called a Brazilian pit viper, was the basis for developing one of the first ACE inhibitors, a group of drugs used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure.