Researchers in Australia have discovered a secret hidden power wielded by marsupials like the Tasmanian devil, and they think it can be harnessed to kill one of the biggest health threats on the planet: superbugs.
Marsupials are mammals that give live births after very short gestation times. Because the babies are born incredibly early in their development, they finish developing while suckling inside the mother’s pouch. Some of the better-known marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, possums, opossums, wombats, and Tasmanian devils.
Because their pouches are havens for bacteria and their young are born without a mature immune system, marsupials have evolved to carry powerful chemicals in their bodies that have superbug-fighting properties.
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.
As you can imagine, there is great interest in this research as health experts have warned for decades that superbugs are a major health threat that have the potential of killing vast numbers of people. According to one estimate, 10 million people could be killed by drug-resistant bacteria by 2050.