How do you milk a Tasmanian devil? “Very, very carefully,” laughs Emma Peel, a Ph D student at Sydney University.
But setting up the “devil’s dairy” could be an answer to the global battle against deadly superbugs.
Peel’s team of researchers have found the marsupials’ milk contains peptides that can fight hard-to-kill bacteria and fungi that can result in deadly infections.
For the study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports this week, the scientists studied the Tasmanian devil’s genome and identified six peptides with the superbug-killing qualities. These compounds are thought to have evolved to protect the animal’s young during early life.
The researchers were then able to artificially replicate the peptides and test their effectiveness at killing harmful bacteria in the lab.
Among the drug-resistant microbes that the animal’s peptides killed was MRSA. About 1 in 3 people carry MRSA in their noses. Most of the time it’s relatively harmless, but it can become deadly if it enters the bloodstream.
The peptides also killed the strain of the pathogen Enterococcus faecalis that is resistant to vancomycin, one of the world’s most powerful antibiotics.
The researchers say their findings could help development of new drugs for the fight against these superbugs.
Experts have long warned that as bacteria develop resistance to our arsenal of drugs, we are edging closer to a time where once-simple infections will no longer be treatable. They stress the need to act fast to develop new antibiotics.
“We need to do this hunting in unusual places for new antibiotics. People are beginning to explore and find new molecules,” Dr Richard Stabler of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC.
Last month the UN pledged a global effort to tackle the growing problem of drug-resistant superbugs. “Anti-microbial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development, and security… We are running out of time,” said Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the UN World Health Organisation.
A report commissioned by the UK Government and headed by British economist Jim O’Neill, published earlier this year, estimates that by the year 2050, superbug infections could kill 10 million people a year worldwide – an average of one death every three seconds – if urgent action is not taken to address the problem.
So, back to the original question about milking the famously aggressive animals: “Very, very carefully and with a lots of safety gear,” Peel said.
Androo Kelly, owner and director of Trowunna Wildlife park in northern Tasmania, which has bred 16 generations of devils, tried his hand at milking them in the 1990s for earlier research by University of Tasmania associate professor Menna Jones.
“We have mothers with young that are also used to being handled, so it’s a simple thing – when the mothers are lactating you just squeeze the milk out,” he said. “It was more of a one-off, it would not be a common practice.”
Kelly said the research answered the longstanding question of why young devils did not contract the highly contagious devil facial tumour disease from infected mothers.
The disease was first reported in 1996 and spread to cover 95% of Tasmania, prompting an international breeding programme to save the animal.
Recent research found the carrion-eating marsupials had already evolved a degree of resistance to the disease, which is caused by two of only four strains of viral cancer found in the wild.
The Tasmanian researchers have developed a vaccine and begun releasing vaccinated devils into areas believed free of the disease.