Peptides in Tasmanian Devil Milk Kill Dangerous Bacterial SuperBug Fungal Infection

Tasmanian Devil Milk has proven to be an unexpected but extremely efficient weapon in the global fight against superbugs. Australian researchers have discovered that peptides in Tasmanian devil milk can kill some of the most threatening and hard to fight infections.

Scientists have discovered that Tasmanian Devil Milk contains an arsenal of antimicrobial compounds that can kill some of the most deadly bacterial and fungal infections known to science – including golden staph.  “It was really exciting,” said PhD candidate Emma Peel who conducted the research. “We showed that these devil peptides kill multi-drug resistant bacteria, which is really cool,” she said.

An unlikely solution

Tasmanian devils were found to produce six different types of these antimicrobial compounds – humans produce just one – and scientists were able to successfully synthesise them in the lab to test their effectiveness against a number of drug-resistant bacterial and fungal pathogens.

The Tasmanian devil has an extremely short gestation period of jus 21 days. After such a short period, the babies (called joeys) are highly underdeveloped and vulnerable to all sorts of infections and diseases. Under these conditions, it was expected that the mother’s Tasmanian Devil Milk provides a much-needed protection. This was the inspiration for the study.

When tested against 25 different bacterial and six fungal strains, the six varieties of antimicrobial compounds were found to kill golden staph (Staphylococcus aureus) – responsible for food poisoning, pneumonia, and toxic shock syndrome – and Enterococcus, which can cause urinary tract infections and meningitis.

“There are potential pathogens present in the devil microbiome, so the fact that the under-developed young in the pouch don’t get sick was a clue something interesting was going on,” Ms Peel said. “That’s what inspired our most recent study.”

The compounds also killed Candida krusei – a rare yeast species associated with high mortality – and the deadly and hyper-virulent airborne fungus called Cryptococcus gattii. “It was really exciting,” one of the team, Emma Peel from the University of Sydney in Australia, told Bridie Smith at The Sydney Morning Herald. “We showed that these devil peptides kill multi-drug resistant bacteria, which is really cool.”

Among the drug-resistant bugs which Emma Peel tested was the golden staph – Staphylococcus aureus. This usually harmless pathogen is carried around by some 30 percent of all people in their nose or on their skin. However, if it gets into the bloodstream via a wound then it can become extremely dangerous – even lethal. The golden staph has proven quite resilient and year after year, it is becoming more resistant to drugs.

For the uninitiated, Tasmanian devils are a species of carnivorous marsupial found in the wild only on the Australian island state of Tasmania. Around the size of a small dog, they’re the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world.

Tasmanian devils are currently under serious threat from devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) – a highly infectious parasitic facial cancer that’s wiped out more than 70 percent of the species.

But while this disease has been wreaking havoc on the population over the past two decades, it appears the species is actually developing its own resistance to DFTD. “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,” Ms Peel said.

A devastating problem

This is where this study could step in. It could provide a novel treatment approach where everything else is failing and could even help us tackle a global crisis. Drug-resistant bacteria are a global threat, and according to the World Health Organization, one we are not currently prepared to deal with.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has developed to threaten the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. The magnitude of the issue is hard to estimate, but the fact is, pathogens seem to develop AMR faster than medicine can develop new strains of antibiotics, so it seems somewhat unavoidable to reach a tipping point one day; that’s what a WHO report concludes as well.

But while Tasmanian devils can help us, we also have to help them. Tasmanian devils are having the fight of their lives against Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a transmissible type of cancer – the worst kind of diseases, and so far, they aren’t doing so well. Since DFTD was discovered in 1996, the population has dropped by over 85 percent.

“Any hopes of resistant animals in the wild are fading,” says Adrian Good, a supervisor at Devil Ark, an NGO which attempts to save the little devils.

Tasmanian Devil Milk has proven to be an unexpected but extremely efficient weapon in the global fight against superbugs. Australian researchers have discovered that peptides in Tasmanian Devil Milk can kill some of the most threatening and hard to fight infections. “It was really exciting,” said PhD candidate Emma Peel who conducted the research. “We showed that these devil peptides kill multi-drug resistant bacteria, which is really cool,” she said.

An unlikely solution

The Tasmanian devil has an extremely short gestation period of jus 21 days. After such a short period, the babies (called joeys) are highly underdeveloped and vulnerable to all sorts of infections and diseases. Under these conditions, it was expected that the Tasmanian Devil Milk provides a much-needed protection. This was the inspiration for the study.

And that’s not the only indication of this Australian species’ incredible toughness – Tasmanian devil joeys are born without primary immune tissues, and they don’t develop proper antibody-mediated immunity until around 90 days old. And yet, somehow they survive their mother’s pouch, which is positively teeming with bacteria. 

Researchers aren’t entirely sure how tiny, weak babies with lacking immune systems can survive such an environment, but antimicrobial peptides in their mother’s Tasmanian Devil Milk and pouch lining could be key.

“There are potential pathogens present in the devil microbiome, so the fact that the under-developed young in the pouch don’t get sick was a clue something interesting was going on,” Ms Peel said. “That’s what inspired our most recent study.”

When Peel and her team scanned the Tasmanian devil’s genome and analysed the molecular structure of the Tasmanian Devil Milk, they found six naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides in the cathelicidins family that were “three to six times more effective” against a range of fungal infections than a common anti-fungal medication.

Two varieties of peptides – Saha-CATH5 and Saha-CATH6 – have been singled out for being particularly effective in killing bacteria that are harmful to humans.

“Of the six characterised cathelicidins, Saha-CATH5 and 6 have broad-spectrum antibacterial activity and are capable of killing problematic human pathogens,” the team concludes.

Among the drug-resistant bugs which Emma Peel tested was the golden staph – Staphylococcus aureus. This usually harmless pathogen is carried around by some 30 percent of all people in their nose or on their skin. However, if it gets into the bloodstream via a wound then it can become extremely dangerous – even lethal. The golden staph has proven quite resilient and year after year, it is becoming more resistant to drugs.

The other problematic pathogen they 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,” Ms Peel said.

A devastating problem

This is where this study could step in. It could provide a novel treatment approach where everything else is failing and could even help us tackle a global crisis. Drug-resistant bacteria are a global threat, and according to the World Health Organization, one we are not currently prepared to deal with.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has developed to threaten the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. The magnitude of the issue is hard to estimate, but the fact is, pathogens seem to develop AMR faster than medicine can develop new strains of antibiotics, so it seems somewhat unavoidable to reach a tipping point one day; that’s what a WHO report concludes as well.

 

With drug resistant infections expected to kill more people than cancer each year if things keep going as they are, we need a solution, and fast. The researchers are now investigating if the synthetic version of these peptides can be used safely in humans

“These peptides are killing superbugs, so there is potential for future development into antibiotics,” Peel told ABC News.

“That is the next step for our research, to see if these peptides have anti-cancer potential, if they are killing superbugs maybe they could kill the facial tumour.”

The study has been published in scientific reports.

But while Tasmanian devils can help us, we also have to help them. Tasmanian devils are having the fight of their lives against Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a transmissible type of cancer – the worst kind of diseases, and so far, they aren’t doing so well. Since DFTD was discovered in 1996, the population has dropped by over 85 percent.

“Any hopes of resistant animals in the wild are fading,” says Adrian Good, a supervisor at Devil Ark, an NGO which attempts to save the little devils.

 

 

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