With superbugs well on their way to dominating the world, scientists are looking for new and effective ways to stop this growing threat. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the rise of antibiotic resistance to be a global health crisis that could signal the end of modern medicine.
Unless we find a solution, the WHO said that common infections and curable diseases such as tuberculosis and gonorrhea could become deadly once more. Despite the repeated warnings, doctors keep over-prescribing antibiotics, and farmers unnecessarily feed antibiotics to livestock to promote growth and prevent diseases.
Every year, thousands of people die from untreatable superbug infections. But there is hope. A group of researchers from the National Physical Laboratory and University College London have discovered a particular protein in human breast milk that may be the solution to drug-resistant bacteria.
Breast milk antibiotic
The new study, published in the journal Chemical Science, is a continuation of their previous research looking into how breast milk helps babies to fight infections. It has long been known that breast milk is vital to the health of newborns. Previous studies have shown that breastfed children benefit from an extra layer of protection against diseases during the crucial first months of their fragile lives.
The authors of the study identified a protein fragment called lactoferrin in breast milk which can successfully destroy drug-resistant bacteria, fungi and even viruses on contact. Lactoferrin is a minuscule fragment that makes breast milk vital to boosting the immunity and health of your little one.
As reported by Tech Times, since the 1960s, scientists have known about the existence of lactoferrin, but it is only now that they have honed in on the properties of the protein and re-engineered it to make it more effective.
Lactoferrin far better than just another antibiotic to kill superbugs
According to the researchers, the protein can identify, attack and destroy the pathogens in a fraction of a second, making it almost impossible for the bacteria to build up resistance.
To give lactoferrin super powers, the team of researchers manipulated the isolated protein into a virus-like capsule which is able to target specific bacteria and kill them on contact without harming any human host cells.
To monitor the activity of the capsule in real time, Hasan Alkassem – one of the leaders of the study – and his colleagues developed a new high-speed measurement technique using atomic force microscopy. They found that lactoferrin can kill bacteria on contact by punching holes in their protective cell membranes at bullet speed.
“The challenge was not just to see the capsules, but to follow their attack on bacterial membranes. The result was striking: the capsules acted as projectiles porating the membranes with bullet speed and efficiency,” Alkassem said.
While their results look promising and could mean the end of the era of drug-resistant bugs, it might take a few more years before doctors will be able to prescribe this powerful protein that can be found in human breast milk, tears, saliva and nasal secretions.
More research is needed to make sure that the protein is not dangerous, however, Alkassem and his team are hopeful. They believe that lactoferrin may someday be used to defeat superbugs. Furthermore, they speculate that this new technique could provide delivery vehicles for other medicines to treat incurable diseases such as sickle-cell anemia.