Milk from Tasmanian devils helps fight superbugs

Posted Oct 23, 2016 by Tim Sandle
It seems one of the strange science stories of the week, but Australian scientists have discovered that the milk from Tasmanian Devils has antimicrobial properties, including activity against antibiotic resistant organisms.
A Tasmanian Devil relaxing.
A Tasmanian Devil relaxing.
Wayne McLean
A new study has shown that the marsupial's milk contains key peptides that are able to eliminate bacterial infections, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA.) The peptides belong to a class of compounds called cathelicidins. In total six important antibacterial peptides were identified.
In laboratory studies, the extracted peptides were synthesized and screened against 25 different bacteria and six fungi. One of the synthesized peptides proved particularly effective. This was coded Saha-CATH5, and here activity against MRSA was noted. Similar efficacy was also noted against Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus.
There appears to be an evolved reason for the antibacterial action. The researchers are of the view that the cocktail of peptides found in the milk is designed to assist the young marsupials to develop better and become fitter and stronger. In the wild, most marsupials thrive in fairly dirty environments.
The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a dog-sized carnivorous marsupial found in the wild only on the Australian island state of Tasmania. Characteristics of the animal include a stocky build, black fur, pungent odour, an extremely loud screech, and a keen sense of smell.
A factor in support of the ‘natural defense’ theory is that Tasmanian Devil mothers give birth after a gestation period lasting only for a few weeks. The offspring are fed by their mother’s milk, for a period of up to four months as they mature.
It is also of interest that the peptides might also be present in other marsupials. Interviewed by the BBC, one of the lead researchers Emma Peel said: “Tammar wallabies have eight of these peptides and opossums have 12.” The researcher also explained that the next wave of study would look at koala's milk.
The implication of the research is that it could lead to new drugs designed on the properties of the peptides, for use with humans.
The research has been conducted by microbiologists based at Sydney University. The research findings are published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, with the study called “Cathelicidins in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii).”