The Tasmanian devil’s milk contains peptides called cathelicidins that appear to be able to kill multidrug-resistant bacteria, including MRSA and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus, according to a study published online last month in the journal Scientific Reports.
What initially led researchers to investigate the marsupial was its pouch. Born only three weeks into their mother’s pregnancy, baby Tasmanian devils, called imps, crawl up into the pouch, where they suckle and continue to grow for another four months.
Prior studies have found that the Tasmanian devil’s pouch is a breeding ground for bacteria, including dangerous pathogens that could harm the defenseless imps, so scientists assumed there must be immune strengthening qualities in the mother’s milk.
The researchers found 12 different cathelicidins, which act as natural antibiotics, in the milk of the marsupial. Human breast milk contains only one cathelicidin. Scientists believe the Tasmanian devil evolved this infection-fighting cocktail to help their young grow strong, and that treatments mimicking peptides in the milk could prove effective at treating drug-resistant superbugs.
The term “superbug” was originally coined in the early 1970s, and was first used to describe pollution-eating microbes. Since then, the word has evolved to describe a group of hardy yet dangerous infectious diseases.
A 2015 outbreak of the superbug carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE) linked to contaminated endoscopes sickened at least 11 people at two Los Angeles area hospitals. Two people died, and over 200 others were potentially exposed.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a bacterium responsible for several difficult-to-treat staph infections in humans. MRSA kills nearly 20,000 Americans each year, mostly in hospitals, prisons and nursing homes where patients are at greater risk of nosocomial infection (hospital-acquired infection).
About 2 million people develop a superbug infection each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 23,000 die from the illness.
Tasmanian devil’s milk may hold the key to treating many of these illnesses. However, don’t expect to see it on your pharmacy’s shelf anytime soon. Additional studies must be conducted to determine exactly what the peptides are capable of.
Until a cure is found, take the following tips to protect yourself from a superbug infection:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
- Be careful about antibacterial soap – the FDA hasn’t determined whether it’s as effective as traditional soap.
- Avoid taking antibiotics, if possible.
- Get a flu shot.
- Advocate for loved ones in the hospital – superbugs spread in healthcare facilities via tubes inserted into patients’ bodies, such as catheters. If someone you care about is on such a device, don’t be afraid to ask doctors whether they still need it, and when the tubes can come out.