KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida — It’s Frank Robb's calling and his family trade. Robb captured Chance the Snapper in a Chicago lagoon using the alligator sounds he’s mastered since childhood.
Robb’s fellow crocodilian experts working in the wild are researching and studying the thousands of alligators living on NASA property. There, blood samples taken from the gators could help develop new ways to fight bacterial infections, viruses like HIV, cancer and blood loss in humans.
WGN’s Dina Bair and the Medical Watch team visited the Kennedy Space Center and saw a scientific mission that may help change the trajectory of human medicine.
Rockets aren’t the only things that take flight there. The Kennedy Space Center sits on 140,000 acres of wildlife sanctuary. But the mission started on the ground.
NASA wildlife biologist Russell Lowers studies alligators and looks at gators as chemistry sets.
But first, he has to catch them.
“We have a pretty regimented process in capturing these animals where we keep the animals safe and ourselves safe,” Lowers said. “And you never let your guard down.”
His team, which often includes Robb, gathers blood and tissue from the gators. The samples are used for medical and environmental research.
“These gators actually use all these fresh-water systems to survive and reside,” Lowers said.
The stretch of land along Florida’s East Coast is Russell’s field laboratory. Rockets loomed in the distance, but their focus was what lurked below.
“The little guys will run around in here because there’s a lot of habitat where they can get away from the bigger gators,” Lowers said. “The big gators look at these little guys as little Snickers bars.”
It’s where Apollo 10 lifted off in 1969 and years later was used for dozens of shuttle missions to the International Space Station.
Lowers and Robb took the Medical Watch team on a search for gators, through ponds and back roads. They were able to locate a group sunning themselves along the bank.
Robb called them over, a skill that comes in handy on these treks.
Lowers and his team were able to pull an 8-footer onto the bank. He covered the animal’s eyes to calm it down.
They moved quickly to limit the stress on the animal. It took just 15 to 20 minutes to collect their samples.
It’s a slow draw that will yield critical information, including the animal’s load of toxins -- a concern in the area due to the significant industrial activity. And alligators have a natural ability to avoid infection – even in swampy, bacteria-rich waters.
“Their immune systems are the top of anyone in the planet,” Robb said. “A drop of their blood will kill HIV on contact, any known virus or any known bacteria pretty much on contact. They’re pretty amazing.”
It’s the natural armor they carry, seemingly immune to disease, even cancer.
The blood samples will travel far beyond to researchers around the world studying how to apply the reptile’s resilient traits to human medicine. From Florida, they’ll be sent to Japan, South Africa, Georgia, California, Belize, South Carolina and Kentucky.
In Kentucky, the samples are sent to the lab of cancer researchers at the University of Louisville.
There, professor of pharmacology and toxicology Dr John Wise and his team look at the alligators’ seemingly natural ability to resist cancer, particularly when they are exposed to a known cancer-causing agent chromium.
“We have found that gators are resistant to it,” Wise said. “Why? We don’t have that answer yet.”
But they do know this: alligators and humans have remarkably similar-looking chromosomes.
“Alligator chromosomes have a similar shape and organization to the human chromosomes,” Wise said. “When we treat alligator cells with chromium, we don’t see the profound changes we see in human cells. Our initial approach is to try to understand if alligators have acquired an ability to fix DNA and repair DNA damage better than human cells have. If we can figure out what is causing them to be impervious to cancer, then we can adapt that to humans.”
Gator blood can clot quickly an almost superpower that saves them from bleeding out in the wild.
“You’ll find that on a lot of these animals, they are very cannibalistic and territorial, so they are constantly battling each other,” Lowers said. “They have clotting potential like no other animal on the planet. They can lose a whole appendage. These are very amazing critters.”
“These animals have been around for millions of years. What they can do is amazing,” Lowers said. “The way they survive in different areas is something we can all learn from.”
There is so much to learn from these living dinosaurs and their potential contribution to human health.
To learn more about Frank Robb’s conservation efforts and research, check out https://eearss.org
Learn more with Frank Robb on our podcast, Bair Facts on Health