January 14th, 2013 by

Being sick is no fun. But, as a glass-half-full kind of girl, I have always appreciated the reality check, reminding me not to take my health — or our growing knowledge of how to combat disease — for granted.

I was recently prescribed some antibiotics by my doctor for strep throat, bringing pharmaceuticals onto my radar. Maybe that’s why I was so tuned in to a study about the antimicrobial properties recently discovered in giant panda blood.

Giant panda.

Giant panda. Credit: George Lu/Flickr

The study — published by a group of Chinese scientists in the journal Gene — found an antimicrobial compound, cathelicidin-AM, in the panda genome that killed both standard and drug-resistant strains of many microorganisms. (Before you wonder how one would go about organizing a giant panda blood drive, the compound was synthetically reproduced in a lab.)

This exciting news was quickly reported in many major media outlets, from the Telegraph to The Huffington Post. I read excitedly about the panda’s amazing medicinal blood as I sat in bed taking amoxicillin. Could this be the answer to the increasing resistance of bacteria to our current library of antibiotics? Some urge caution before getting too excited.

Cathelicidin-AM is not the first antimicrobial compound to get people’s attention recently. A 2012 study examined similar compounds in the skin of the Russian brown frog. Science writer Ed Yong writes in National Geographic magazine, “Scientists have discovered a new antibiotic, hundreds of new antibiotics, thousands of new antibiotics … All are billed as potential sources of bold new treatments that will solve our antibiotic crisis … And yet, despite decades of such claims, none of these sources has yielded a single marketable drug.”

So perhaps we should not get our hopes up for “panda-cillin.” But I’m still a glass-half-full kind of girl. Much like being sick, the appeal of this story is the reality check, reminding us not to take the animals and plants we share this planet with for granted. If there is still much to learn from — and about — known species like the panda and the Russian brown frog, what about those species still undiscovered?

According to the IUCN, it’s estimated that species today are becoming extinct at a rate between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the expected natural extinction rate. One of the major causes is habitat loss. Forests are home to 80 percent of our planet’s terrestrial biodiversity. This is a big part of why we at American Forests do what we do. Please help us. And the next time you take some medicine, take a minute to think about how it was discovered and what other healing properties we could be destroying before we even realize they’re there.