London - A scientist hit on a breakthrough in antibiotics – while trying to prove her husband wrong.
Dr Sarah Pitt watched her biologist husband Dr Alan Gunn toil over an experiment to find out why snails never fall ill, even in bacteria-ridden gardens.
But when Dr Pitt noticed a flaw in her husband’s lab methods, she re-ran the tests and went on to successfully identify antibacterial properties in the snail slime.
And the unexpected discovery, which came after testing snails from the couple’s garden, could help develop new medicines to treat patients with deep burn wounds and lung infections.
Dr Pitt, who is a lecturer at the University of Brighton, said: "My husband is an invertebrate biologist and I am the microbiologist in the family and we played to our respective strengths.
"He started testing the frothy mucus snails secrete as a defence against bacteria.
"He thought something interesting might be happening, but when I discussed his lab methods it was clear he was doing it all wrong. So I did what wives tend to do and said 'you are doing that all wrong – give it to me and I’ll sort it out', which I did."
She added: "It was chance, really. I don’t think either of us expected anything much to come of it."
Researchers have long suspected snail mucus contains antibacterial properties but experiments have been inconclusive until now.
Spurred on by their professional rivalry, Dr Pitt was able to improve her husband’s method and identify proteins in the snails’ slime.
These proteins could help to develop new medicines, including an antibiotic cream to treat deep burn wounds and an aerosol for lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis.
In her study, Dr Pitt, who is also a chief examiner at the Institute of Biomedical Science, tested frothy mucus from the snails and found proteins in the slime were effective against a germ called pseudomonas aeruginosa. This germ causes lung infections in patients with cystic fibrosis.
Working with colleagues at King’s College London, Dr Pitt separated the snail slime proteins, known as protein fractions, into smaller chunks.
She said: "We found that fractions containing some smaller proteins also worked against the bacteria, something we were not expecting at all, based on our previous results."
Dr Pitt and husband Dr Gunn, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University, then teamed up to assess the proteins’ genetic code and found her discovery was a world first.
Dr Pitt, who published her study in the British Journal of Biomedical Science, said: "Matching (the proteins) with the international database of proteins, we found that no one had reported them before, so they are newly identified by us."
The microbiologist is now working to make the proteins artificially in the lab which could help in the development of a new antibacterial cream.