Drugs that are widely used to treat HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C could in future treat white nose syndrome in bats, new research suggests.
So far the deadly syndrome has killed 6 million bats in North America alone, so the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide some hope that remaining bats can be saved.
The disease is named for the white fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans. It infects the skin of the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats.
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The fungus is sinister because it penetrates the bodies of the resting bats. The resulting injuries wake the bats, which in their discomfort, begin moving in their caves and flying when they should be hibernating. Eventually, most victims succumb to emaciation, since they run down their body fat stores meant to last them through the hibernation.
The HIV drugs, called protease inhibitors, appear to knock out much of the fungus. The word "protease" refers to enzymes that can break down proteins and peptides, so inhibiting these damaging enzymes holds many benefits.
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"This study suggests that proteases may help in infection and so addition of protease inhibitors could block degradation and invasion of bat tissues by the fungus," Brown University biologist and co-author Richard Bennett said in a press release.
Bennett and his team discovered an enzyme, called "Destructin-1," which is secreted by the white nose syndrome fungus. This protease, along with other components of the fungus, can attack collagen, a primary protein found in animal connective tissues.
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Hopefully "Destructin-1" can be renamed "Destructible," because the scientists found that the common protease inhibitor chymostatin biochemically reduces the activity of the deadly fungal enzyme. As a result, the researchers saw a 77 percent reduction in collagen damage.
They are puzzled, though, why that figure wasn't 100 percent. Bennett and his colleagues strongly suspect that something else besides Destructin-1 in the fungus is damaging to collagen.
As he said, "There is more to discover."
Photo: A bat infected with white nose syndrome. Credit: Ryan von Linden/N.Y. Department of Environmental Conservation