Oxford scientists think the next big weapon in the fight against heart disease is… tick spit?

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Sascha Preussner/123RF
When you think of animals saving people’s lives, you probably picture a dolphin rescuing some ailing swimmer from drowning, or a Lassie-style dog pulling a toddler out of a well. In fact, the big lifesaver from the animal kingdom may just turn out to be one of the more unusual suspects out there: the tiny blood-sucking arachnid known as the tick.

More commonly thought of as the carrier of various tick-borne diseases, including rickettsia and ebola, a new study from the U.K.’s University of Oxford suggests that tick saliva could actually be an invaluable weapon for helping fight inflammation-based pathologies like heart disease.

“We have developed a method of rapidly identifying and characterizing proteins in tick saliva by cloning tick salivary gland genes into yeast,” Professor Shoumo Bhattacharya, lead author of a paper on the research, told Digital Trends. “We have used this method to identify tick saliva proteins, called evasins, that bind and neutralise chemokines, which drive inflammation in the heart and other organs. These tick saliva proteins could be turned into drugs that treat inflammatory conditions driven by chemokines.”

The work is detailed in a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. It names several new tick evasins, and demonstrates how one — extracted from the cayenne tick found in the Americas — can bind and block the effect of the proteins which cause inflammation in the disease myocarditis, heart attack and strokes. Tick saliva contains around 1,500 to 3,000 of these inflammation-blocking proteins. They are used by the tick to prevent the kind of painful inflammation that would normally alert a host to the tick’s presence, thereby giving them a period of up to 10 days to feed unnoticed.

“We [next] need to raise funding to do more research, show efficacy and mechanism of action of these evasins, [and] identify and engineer new evasins,” Bhattacharya said.

He said the researchers also plan to collaborate with the pharmaceutical industry to convert their findings into therapeutics. Or, to use the catchier term the team uses, to develop a “bug to drug” solution. The results may lead to the development of new medicines to help fight diseases in which inflammation is present — including heart disease, stroke, pancreatitis, and arthritis.

Perhaps combined with new AI tools for helping predict pathologies such heart disease, it seems that the tick is finally living up to its superhero status. Just ahead of Amazon’s reboot of the classic superhero cartoon The Tick, too!

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