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Tasmanian Devil's milk could be the killer ingredient in war on superbugs.


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Devil's milk has proved to be an unlikely weapon in the increasingly desperate global fight against superbugs.

Australian researchers have discovered that peptides contained in the milk of Tasmanian devils can kill some of the most deadly bacterial and fungal infections, including golden staph. 

Having scanned the devil's genome and discovered the six naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides, researchers from Sydney University set about replicating them artificially. They then tested the peptide's effectiveness at killing some of the most harmful bacteria known to humans.

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Among the drug resistant bacteria the devil peptides killed was golden staph, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A potentially fatal bacterium carried by about 30 per cent 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.

The other problematic human pathogen tested was the bacteria enterococcus​, which is resistant to the mighty vancomycin antibiotic.

"Vancomycin is a pretty potent antibiotic and if a bug is resistant to that, then there aren't a lot of drug options available to you," biologist Emma Peel said.

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It is estimated that, if left unchecked, superbugs could kill more people than cancer within four decades. Results of a review of antimicrobial resistance released in London in May suggested that if left unchecked by 2050, superbugs could kill 10 million people a year.

The devil milk peptides hail from a family of antimicrobials called cathelicidins, which act as natural antibiotics. All animals have them. Devils have six varieties, while humans have just one.

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The antimicrobial peptides assist marsupial joeys fight off any bacterial or fungal challenge experienced while developing in the pouch, which is a far from sterile environment. 

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

Original article in Nature Scientific Reports here:

Cathelicidins in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

From the abstract:

Of the six characterised cathelicidins, Saha-CATH5 and 6 have broad-spectrum antibacterial activity and are capable of killing problematic human pathogens including methicillin-resistant S. aureus and vancomycin-resistant E. faecalis, while Saha-CATH3 is active against fungi. Saha-CATH5 and 6 were toxic to human A549 cells at 500 μg/mL, which is over seven times the concentration required to kill pathogens.

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