New hope in superbug fight: Tasmanian devil milk

Tasmanian devils may hold the key to fighting human superbugs.

Story highlights

  • Peptides in Tasmanian devil milk killed human pathogens that are antibiotic-resistant
  • More research will look at the milk of other marsupials

(CNN)Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck's occasional enemy, the voracious Tasmanian devil, may pose a threat to something we'd actually like to see disappear from this planet: the superbug.

Researchers in Australia have suspected that Tasmanian devils and other marsupials carry particularly powerful chemicals in their bodies to help their young grow.
    Marsupials are those mammals that are born incredibly early in their development and grow into the furry creatures you'd recognize only after spending a couple months suckling inside their mothers' pouches; think kangaroos and opossums.
    Australia is home to hundreds of native marsupial species, including the Tasmanian devil, a brown or blackish furry creature that looks a bit like a baby bear, with stocky legs and sharp teeth.
    Much like the "Looney Tunes" cartoon, Tasmanian devils may best be known for their prodigious appetites. Sometimes called the "vacuum cleaner of the forest," the world's largest carnivorous marsupial eats birds, snakes, fish and bugs. And it consumes everything: bones, fur, organs and meat.
    Superbugs are bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotic treatment. Because the drugs have been overused, many bacteria have adapted, making the drugs less effective. At least 23,000 Americans die each year due to these infections.
    What led scientists to investigate the Tasmanian devil's potential to kill superbugs was not its appetite, but its pouch. Born about three weeks into a mother's pregnancy, tiny Tasmanian devils, known as imps, must crawl up through their mother's fur to this pouch, where they will suckle and continue to grow for about four months.
    The new home is far from sterile. Studies have shown that a Tasmanian devil's pouch contains a significant amount of bacteria, including pathogens that could hurt the underdeveloped young. Scientists assumed there must be immune system-boosting qualities in the mother's milk to help the vulnerable young develop in that environment.
    Testing the milk, scientists found several peptides called cathelicidins, a natural kind of antibiotic. Humans carry a cathelicidin in their system, but we have only one, LL-37. Tasmanian devils have 12.
    The study was published in the latest edition of the journal Scientific Reports.
    When exposed to the peptides from Tasmanian devil milk, multidrug-resistant bacteria like vancomycin-resistant enterococcus and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) died.
    The research is in its early stages, but knowing about the superbug-fighting properties of Tasmanian devil milk could lead to new drugs.
    Superbugs are considered a major international health threat, so significant interest in the research is expected. Experts believe drug-resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people by 2050, or one person every three seconds, if there aren't any major breakthrough drugs to fight them.
    The news may also help the Tasmanian devil population, which is currently an endangered species, with an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 left in the wild.
    The creatures, which are now found only on the Australian island state of Tasmania, used to be abundant on the Australian mainland. A concerted effort in the 1800s eradicated them from the mainland, because ranchers mistakenly thought they were killing livestock.
    A rare contagious cancer, not ranchers, is now the Tasmanian devils' biggest enemy. Devil facial tumor disease has killed thousands of Tasmanian devils since the 1990s.
    Don't expect to see Tasmanian devil milk on your pharmaceutical shelf any time soon. A lot more research will be needed to see what more the peptides can do.
    Scientists are also looking at other members of the marsupial family to see whether animals like the milk from koalas and wallabies may also fight superbugs. Earlier research in wallabies has showed similar results.
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    "And the really hard part is scaling up the production to produce mass quantities for clinical trials," said John VandeBerg, a pioneering geneticist and professor who works with another marsupial, the South American gray short-tailed opossum, at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
    "I do think it is feasible, though, and this could be a whole new dimension for our arsenal to combat these superbugs. This could lead to very important work."