Having healthy frog populations in your neighborhood may benefit you indirectly by keeping mosquito populations down, but frogs may also provide the cure to your next illness. Frog skin secretions in particular are increasingly being explored for drugs to help fight infections, release insulin, regulate heart function and even cure cancer.

Crucixfix frog

The Crucifix Frog (Notaden bennettii) secretes a 'goo' that holds promise as a medical adhesive, being sticky when wet.

Image: Jodi Rowley
© Jodi Rowley

Frogs live in the kind of places that are conducive to the growth of potentially harmful bacteria and fungi, so it's not surprising that they have developed the ability to protect their skin from invasion of disease-causing microorganisms. Now these compounds are being explored for potential new drugs for fighting human diseases.

There are over six thousand frog species known on earth, and each of these species carries in its skin an arsenal of weapons against infection. Among the substances produced in frog skin are alkaloids, steroids, and peptides (amino-acids) with broad-spectrum antibacterial and antifungal activities. These peptides are released by the skin, often in very high concentrations, in response to stress or infection, and increase when in an environment that promotes the growth of microorganisms. Because of the general way in which they work, antibiotic resistance is likely to evolve more slowly to drugs developed from these peptides compared to conventional antibiotics

In addition to providing a host of potential new antibiotics, some of these peptides have also been shown to inactivate viruses. These include secretions from the African Clawed Frog (Xenopus laevis) and Waxy Monkey Frog (Phyllomedusa sauvagei), which have activity against herpes simplex virus, and those from several Australian tree frogs (Litoria spp.), which inhibit HIV infection in the lab.

Australian Red-eyed Tree Frog

The Australian Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris) has skin secretions with antibacterial peptides.

Image: Jodi Rowley
© Jodi Rowley

Frog secretions have also been shown to have activity against human cancer cells, have insulin-releasing properties that may be useful in treating Type 2 diabetes, and have spermicidal compounds that may be suitable to be developed into contraceptives. A peptide from the skin of a Pumpkin Toadlet (Brachycephalus ephippium) is capable of dilating blood vessels, and may have benefits in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

Aside from curing ills, frog skin secretions may also provide pain relief, with the isolation of an alkaloid from the Phantasmal Poison Frog (Epipedobates tricolor) having 200 times the analgesic potency of morphine. Frog secretions may also help deliver drugs in more effective ways, with the foam produced by Trinidadian Tungara frogs (Engystomops pustulosus) to mix with their eggs being investigated as a delivery system for antibiotics, as it is capable of taking up drugs and releasing them at a stable rate.

Secretions of the particularly sticky kind used by frogs to deter predators (or even glue potential-predator's mouths shut!) are also of great medicinal interest. Adhesives produced by the Australian burrowing frogs (Notaden) are strong and flexible even when wet, and have been explored for use as a medical adhesive to treat human knee injuries.

Each frog species may produce dozens of compounds capable of curing various ills and no two species with the same array of compounds in their skin have yet been found. Every time we lose a frog species to extinction, we lose not only their important ecological role, but also their unique potential medicinal cabinet.

Dr Jodi Rowley

Australian Museum Research Institute & UNSW Sydney.

Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea)

The Australian Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea) has skin secretions containing peptides that hold great promise in reducing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) transmission.

Image: Bradshaw
© Australian Museum

More information

Bevins, C.L. and Zasloff, M. (1990). Peptides from frog skin. Annual review of biochemistry, 59: 395-414.

Bradbury, J. (2005). Frog skin hope for HIV prevention. Drug Discovery Today, 10: 1489-1490.

Conlon, J.M., Kolodziejek, J. and Nowotny, N. (2004). Antimicrobial peptides from ranid frogs: taxonomic and phylogenetic markers and a potential source of new therapeutic agents. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Proteins and Proteomics, 1696: 1-14.

Daly, J.W., Garraffo, H.M., Spande,T.F., Decker, M.W., Sullivanb, J.P. and Williams, M. (2000). Alkaloids from frog skin: the discovery of epibatidine and the potential for developing novel non-opioid analgesics. Natural Product Reports, 17:131-135.

Graham, L.D., Glattauer, V., Vaughan, P.R., Werkmeister, J.A., Tyler, M.J. and Ramshaw, J.A. (2006). An adhesive secreted by Australian frogs of the genus Notaden. In Biological Adhesives, pp. 207-223. Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Haslam, I.S., Roubos, E.W., Mangoni, M.L., Yoshizato, K., Vaudry, H., Kloepper, J.E., Pattwell, D.M., Maderson, P.F. and Paus, R. (2014). From frog integument to human skin: dermatological perspectives from frog skin biology. Biological Reviews, 89: 618-655.

Rinaldi, A.C. (2002). Antimicrobial peptides from amphibian skin: an expanding scenario: Commentary. Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, 6:799-804.

Thomas, C. (2005). Frog skin yields antiviral peptides. Nature Medicine, 11: 1046-1046

Zairi, A., Tangy, F., Bouassida, K. and Hani, K. (2009). Dermaseptins and magainins: antimicrobial peptides from frogs' skin- new sources for a promising spermicides microbicides-;a mini review. BioMed Research International. 2009.

VanCompernolle, S.E., Taylor, R.J., Oswald-Richter, K., Jiang, J., Youree, B.E., Bowie, J.H., Tyler, M.J., Conlon, J.M., Wade, D., Aiken, C. and Dermody, T.S. (2005). Antimicrobial peptides from amphibian skin potently inhibit human immunodeficiency virus infection and transfer of virus from dendritic cells to T cells. Journal of Virology, 79: 11598-11606.