PROVIDENCE, R.I., July 13 (UPI) -- Researchers at Brown University say they're getting closer to solving the mystery of white nose syndrome, the deadly fungus that is decimating bat populations throughout the United States.
A team of scientists led by Brown University Professor Richard Bennett has identified the fungus' debilitating weapon, a secreted enzyme that causes tissue damage to the wings and noses of infected bats.
In identifying the enzyme, the team of engineers and biologists may have also identified a potential cure.
Bennett recently secured a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to further study the key enzyme, and to test whether an enzyme-blocking mechanism can successfully combat the fungus.
Initial tests suggest it's possible. After identifying the enzyme, which researchers named Destructin-1, the scientists identified a type of inhibitor drug called chymostatin, commonly used in the treatment of AIDS and hepatitis. When tested on lab-grown tissue infected with the fungus, the inhibitor reduced the collagen-destroying abilities of the fungus and its key enzyme by 77 percent.
The remaining 23 percent suggests there is more work to be done.
"On the surface it suggests there are other activities in the secretome that can degrade collagen," Bennet said in a new release earlier this year. "There is more to discover."
Since the fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) was first identified among bat populations in New York in 2006, an estimated 6 million bats have died from the disease. If the fungus' spread isn't slowed down, the loss of bats could eventually cost farmers millions of dollars, as the nocturnal flyers play a key role in controlling pest populations.
When Bennet first became interested in bats, the prospects for the seven East Coast bat species most affected by the disease was bleak.
"There was no hope on the horizon," he recently told the Providence Journal. "Since then, there have been some good signs."
Bennet hopes more good signs will come when he and his team finally test their enzyme-thwarting inhibitor on actual bats. The researchers are working on a spray that could used to bolster the fungus-fighting abilities of hibernating. Helping infected populations survive the winter would be a big first step in ending the fungus' spread.