Milk from marsupials known as Tasmanian devils could be the new weapon for the global fight against the increasingly deadly 'superbugs'.
Australian researchers suggest that it could kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria like golden staph and potentially combat the deadly facial tumor disease that has killed†80% of the wild devil population in the past 20 years. Devil facial tumor disease was first reported in 1996 and spread to cover 95% of Tasmania, prompting an international breeding program to save the animal.
World Health Organization director-general Margaret Chan warned last month some scientists were describing the impact of superbugs as a "slow-motion tsunami" and the situation was "bad and getting worse". According to British study, superbugs could kill up to 10 million people globally by 2050.
The underdeveloped young have an immature immune system when they are born, yet survive growth in their mother's bacteria-filled pouch. A 2015 study found there was a diverse range of bacteria living in the Tasmanian devil's pouch microbiome, an ecosystem of microorganisms including bacteria.
According to research led by Sydney University PhD student Emma Peel, milk produced by the marsupials contains antimicrobial peptides called cathelicidins which had been tested as being effective against a number of pathogens, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or golden staph and enterococcus which are resistant to powerful antibiotics like vancomycin.
Staph is a†potentially fatal bacterium carried by about†30% of people in their nose or on their skin, it is†mostly harmless. However†if it†gets into the†bloodstream†via†a wound, it can be deadly.
"We think this has led to an expansion of these peptides in marsupials," said Emma Peel, who worked on the research published in Scientific Reports, part of the Nature journal.
Marsupials have more peptides than other mammals. In the devil there are six, whereas humans have only one of this type of peptide.
"These peptides are killing superbugs, so there is potential for future development into antibiotics," Peel†said "That is the next step for our research, to see if these peptides have anti-cancer potential, if they are killing superbugs maybe they could kill the facial tumour." she added.
Peel said the tests were done with artificial peptides made by extracting the cathelicidin sequence from the devil's genome. The artificial peptides also tested as between three and six times more effective against some fungal infections than anti-fungal medication.
Milking the famously aggressive animals was a process to be undertaken "very, very carefully and with a lots of safety gear," Peel said.
"One of the most difficult things in today's world is to try and find new antibiotics for drug-resistant strains of bacteria," the research manager of the university's Australasian Wildlife Genomics Group, Carolyn Hogg, said.
"Most of the other previous antibiotics have come from plants, moulds and other work that's been around for close to a 100 years, so it's time to start looking elsewhere."