Tobacco plant protein fights disease

Christine McGinn

A team of Melbourne-based scientists has discovered a protein in an ornamental tobacco plant which could fight life-threatening diseases, including golden staph and HIV, if made into an antibiotic.

La Trobe University scientists found the peptide NaD1 in the flowers of Nicotiana alata had infection busting properties, with the findings published in the journal Nature Communications.

Co-lead scientist Mark Hulett said the discovery could lead to the development of a new class of antibiotics but it would require at least another five years of research.

"It's an exciting discovery that could be harnessed to develop a new class of life-saving antimicrobial therapy to treat a range of infectious diseases, including multidrug-resistant golden staph, and viral infections such as HIV, Zika virus, Dengue and Murray River Encephalitis," Dr Hulett said.

Dr Hulett and co-lead Marc Kvansakul, from the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, used technology at the Australian Synchrotron to see how the peptide can target and destroy the micro-organism responsible for a dangerous fungal infection called Candida albicans.

The infection can cause life-threatening infections in people with compromised auto-immune systems, including those with cancer and transplant recipients.

"Infectious diseases are a major global health problem, accounting for more than one in eight deaths, and mortality rates are predicted to skyrocket over the next 30 years," Dr Hulett said

"Antibiotic resistance at the current rate will eventually lead to the exhaustion of effective long-term drug options. It's imperative we develop new antibiotic treatments."

But there are only a few effective antibiotics to treat infection, Dr Hulett told AAP.

"It is about providing some options in the clinic and to help patients," he said on Thursday.

Dr Hulett and Dr Kvansakul also found NaD1 could be effective in killing cancer cells in 2014.

The Australian Research Council and La Trobe University funded the research.