Platypus milk may help combat antibiotic resistance

According to researchers, milk obtained from the duck-billed platypus could soon be used to fight antibiotic resistance. The new study report was published in the journal Structural Biology Communications.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the largest threats to survival of mankind according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO calls this a “post antibiotic era” where even minor infections and injuries could be soon deadly. The bacteria are rapidly developing mechanisms by which they can escape being killed by the antibiotics. The resistance of one generation of bacteria are soon passed on to their next generation and a whole range of superbugs are generated that cannot be killed with the antibiotics that are known. According to the Public Health England (PHE), nearly one fifth of the antibiotic prescriptions are not necessary and their use is giving rise to antibiotic resistance. Yearly around 5000 deaths occur in England due to drug-resistant infections.

Platypus milk to combat antibiotic resistance soon finds study. ©Laura Romin & Larry Dalton
Platypus milk to combat antibiotic resistance soon finds study. ©Laura Romin & Larry Dalton Download image

It was eight years ago that Australian researchers had found that the milk from these animals could fight off superbugs that are resistant to the strongest antibiotics that is known to mankind. That study was published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution. In this new study the team from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and Deakin University has discovered what it was that was making this milk fight the superbugs. Using this knowledge they could now create new antibiotics, they speculate.

Saving Lives with Platypus Milk from CSIRO on Vimeo.

These strange semi-aquatic animals called monotremes, are one of the two mammals that lay eggs and then suckle their infants. These animals do not have teats like other mammals that make milk delivery to the newborn sterile and infection free. They store their milk concentrates in their bellies and sweat them out for their babies. This different milk delivery to the babies could be associated with the antibacterial properties feel experts. Dr Janet Newman, from Australia's national science agency CSIRO believes that platypus is a “weird animal” and thus their biochemistry could also be “weird” and that makes sense. Since the teats that could deliver the milk in a clean non-contaminated manner are absent this form of milk delivery could mean that the milk comes in contact with harmful bacteria.

Dr Julie Sharp from the Deakin University says that the milk has a unique antibacterial property. She and the team were looking at the protein structure and characteristics from the milk to understand its mechanism of action. They noted a curly structured protein that has never been encountered before and called it “Shirley Temple” after the child star from 1930’s who had curly hair or ringlets like this protein has. This could pave the way for new antibiotic discovery said Dr. Newman. She added that this unusual protein has till date only been found in these animals but it can open ways to study other protein structures and lead to other drug discovery.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, it is difficult to avoid the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections completely. As on now the agenda of research should be to prevent emergence of new resistance and also prevent the spread of currently existing antibiotic resistance.

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