WAM Abu Dhabi, 4 Feb., 2013 (WAM)– Scientific studies of camels have provided important clues to everything from understanding advanced reproduction techniques to saving endangered species.
Now a research project with staff at the UAE University in Al Ain, and Alfaisal University in Saudi Arabia, is using camels to understand how the proteins in camel tears could improve human medicine.
The researchers are working with a team at an Al Ain camel farm and reproduction centre. The 500 dromedary camels kept at Hili Embryo Transfer Surgery Centre make perfect subjects.
The aim of the project, which started in 2007 with a grant from UAE University, is to find an effective medicine to treat Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that destroys the eyes’ ability to produce tears, making them more prone to bacterial and viral infections, English daily The National reported today.
"Patients often complain of dryness of the eyes in the form of foreign body sensation or grittiness," explains Professor Walter Conca, MD, a former UAE University associate professor who now works at Alfaisal University Medical College and King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh.
“It can be extremely disturbing. We thought that the camel, which is naturally living in the most arid climate on the globe, must have some sort of protective system which allows it to live in the desert.
"This was our hypothesis and we started collecting the tears from the animals and finding the basic components of the protein molecules." Sjogren’s syndrome is often developed by people with other autoimmune and rheumatic disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and primary biliary cirrhosis of the liver.
Artificial tears in the form of eye drops are the only way of managing the dry eye disorder. But they are neither very effective nor offer a very advanced solution.
Camels, however, suffer very few eye diseases and seem very well adapted to living comfortably in the driest and dustiest of environments.
If the team can identify the proteins that are helping to fight off infections and preventing anything from inhibiting the eyes’ ability to produce tears, they can help treat dry eyes in humans, Prof Conca says.
They have received a two million riyal grant (Dh1.9 million) from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Centre for Science and Technology.
"Our hypothesis is based on the fact that camels have adapted incredibly well to living in the desert," says Professor Michael Conlon, a researcher from UAE University. “There, winds often blow sand into the air and to shield their eyes, the camels have long eyelashes that catch most of the grains.
“But the eyelashes don’t do all the work. The camels also have effective tears which help lubricate their eyes and protect them from infection. So if we analyse all the compounds in camel tears, we might find a protein or something that can be added to artificial tears to make them a lot better.
"This is all about adaptation. The camels have adaptations that no other animals have that don’t live in these extreme conditions. We can learn from these and use them to our advantage," says Prof Conlon.
It is already known that camel tear fluid has three main layers: an outer layer made up of lipids that protect from evaporation, an aqueous middle layer that contains the proteins and an inner layer containing carbohydrates. It is the same model as human tears, but the proteins and molecule formations are different.
Camels can break down any foreign bodies which land in the eye much more easily, and they also do not seem to be affected by anything (diseases or foreign objects) which could inhibit their ability to produce tears.
"We have found some very interesting things where we have compared human with camel tears," Prof Conca says.
"We hope that by analysing the composition of camel tear fluid, and by making discoveries like this, we could facilitate or assist or help in designing artificial tears for humans." "I hope within six months to have the definitive answer about the antibody composition," he says, "and we will go ahead and publish that initial work and see whether the initial observations are also pertinent to other strains of camel." While other big mammals such as horses, elephants and whales have been studied in depth for decades, it is only recently that camels have received the same levels of attention.
"I don’t think we have underestimated the camel," says Prof Conca. "I think since the Middle East is just beginning to expand, it’s able to adapt the knowledge acquired elsewhere and bring it to the region here to look for things [in science] that are probably of value and unknown. It takes time." WAM/Latheef