To fight superbugs, you must milk a Tasmanian devil

October 19, 2016 Providence Health Team

Help comes from the unlikeliest places.

Who’d have thought that a weapon against superbugs—bacteria resistant to medical treatment— might come from a ferocious marsupial with a pungent smell and a big bite?

But that’s the word from Down Under – specifically from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science, which has published the startling news that milk from the Tasmanian devil seems to contain polypeptides that are effective in attacking some pathogens such as bacteria.

The researchers re-created some of the peptides they found in samples of Tasmanian devil milk and tested them on a variety of bacteria. One of them killed some drug-resistant pathogens and the difficult-to-treat staph infection known as MRSA.

“The Tasmanian devil has a broad repertoire of cathelicidins which likely evolved to protect their immunologically naive young,” the authors write. The cathelicidins, or family of polypeptides, show “broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity,” they say.

The authors called for more research, not just into Tasmanian devil cathelicidins, but also into those of other animals, including wallabies and koala bears.

The superbug crisis

Health officials have been warning for some time about the development of so-called superbugs, which are resistant to antibiotics used to treat infectious diseases. The World Health Organization calls the proliferation of superbugs “an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society.” Antibiotic resistance is present in every country, the organization says.

The WHO warns:

  • Antimicrobial resistance threatens treatment of a growing array of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi.
  • Without effective antibiotics, the safety of cancer chemotherapy and major surgery will be compromised.
  • Caring for patients with resistant infections costs more because illnesses last longer and more expensive drugs are needed to fight the infection.
  • Each year about 480,000 people develop tuberculosis that is resistant to multiple drugs.
  • Drug resistance is complicating the fight against malaria and HIV.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs naturally as bacteria and fungi adapt to medical treatment, but the evolution is being accelerated by the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals, the WHO says.

That’s why the findings from Australia are so significant.

To learn more

The study, “Cathelicidins in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii),” was published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

The University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science has been focused on the Tasmanian devil, along with other creatures, for some time, as indicated by this press release about genetics of the carnivorous marsupial.

If you’re considering a career in Tasmanian devil milking, be advised their large head and neck make them capable of delivering among the strongest bites per unit body mass of any mammal. They screech loudly, have a pungent odor and are noted for their ferocity when feeding. It might be best to let the researchers develop synthetic versions of the Tasmanian devil milk peptides.

For more background on superbugs, see the World Health Organization’s fact sheet on Antimicrobial resistance.

If you’re fighting an infection, talk to your health care provider about the most appropriate treatment. You can find a Providence provider here.

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