Saliva from ticks could be a potential lifesaver, scientists have discovered, as it's been shown to block the harmful chemicals associated with a particular kind of heart disease.
If we can develop a drug from this tick spit we win a valuable new treatment option for myocarditis, which can occur when the heart becomes infected by a common virus, and leads to heart failure in around 30 percent of cases.
What's more, the team from the University of Oxford in the UK thinks the treatment might eventually extend beyond heart disease to all kinds of other related diseases.
"Myocarditis is a devastating disease, for which there are currently very few treatments," explains lead researcher Shoumo Bhattacharya. "With this latest research, we hope to be able to take inspiration from the tick's anti-inflammatory strategy and design a life-saving therapy for this dangerous heart condition."
"We may also be able to use the same drugs to treat other diseases where inflammation plays a big part, such as heart attack, stroke, pancreatitis, and arthritis."
Myocarditis causes chemicals called chemokines to be released in the heart, which in turn attracts cells leading to inflammation in the organ, and it's these chemokines that tick spit can help to neutralise.
It's all by design too – by sending out proteins called evasins in its saliva, the tick can feed on blood from a host for eight to ten days without being noticed, because those evasins are blocking the chemokines that would otherwise cause inflammation.
Depending on the species, ticks can have up to 3,000 proteins in their spit, and to avoid having to extract the saliva directly from the ticks, the scientists used synthetic genes to grow the same proteins in yeast.
This "bug to drug" technique meant hundreds of tick saliva proteins could be analysed for their anti-inflammatory qualities, and one particularly promising evasin was spotted: P991_AMBCA, from the cayenne tick found in the Americas.
The next step is to work out how we can turn these chemokine-blocking proteins into treatments for the hundreds of thousands of people diagnosed with myocarditis.
It's also a much-needed good PR boost for the little tick, a creature we normally associate with the spread of diseases rather than ways to cure them.
"They may not be pretty, but these little creatures could hold the secret to better treatments for a whole range of diseases," says Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, who wasn't involved in the research.
"There's a long way to go, but tick saliva looks like an exciting, albeit unconventional, area of research."
The research has been published in Scientific Reports.