Scientists are working on finding solutions to the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The latest weapon in their arsenal is Tasmanian devil milk.
The Tasmanian devil is a marsupial, which means it’s a mammal that is born very early in its development and spends a few months growing and suckling inside their mothers’ pouches, just like kangaroos and opossums.
Researchers in Australia have suspected for some time that marsupials might carry some potent chemicals in their bodies to help their young grow. It was Tasmanian devils’ pouches that led researchers to study these chemicals.
The furry brown critters are born 3 weeks into their mothers’ pregnancy. These imps, as baby Tasmanian devils are called, must crawl up through their mother’s fur to this pouch, where they will suckle and continue to grow for about 4 months.
Research shows that these pouches contain tons of bacteria, including pathogens that could harm the underdeveloped young. Scientists thought there must beimmune system-boosting qualities in the mother’s milk to help the imps develop in such an environment.
So, researchers tested Tasmanian devil milk and foundseveral peptides called cathelicidins, a natural kind of antibiotic. The marsupials carry 12 cathelicidins in their systems, while humans only carry 1. Six of the peptides were found to contain superbug-killing qualities.
The Sydney-based team recreated the 6 Tasmanian devil superbug-killing peptides and tested them on 25 types of bacteria and 6 types of fungi.
When exposed to the peptides from Tasmanian devil milk, multidrug-resistant bacteria like vancomycin-resistant enterococcus and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) died.
About 1 in 3 people carry MRSA in their noses, and most of the time it does them no harm. However, it can become deadly if it enters the bloodstream.
The Tasmanian Devil Population Could Benefit, Too
Using these peptides to fight superbugs in humans is still a long way off, and more research is needed. But the discovery might also help save the Tasmanian devil population, which is currently an endangered species. There is only an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 left in the wild.
Tasmanian devils used to be found roaming all over the Australian mainland, but these days they are only found on the island state of Tasmania, as the name implies.
Back in the 1800’s, ranchers mistakenly thought Tasmanian devils were killing livestock, so a massive effort to eradicate the marsupials was launched.
These days, the major threat against them is a rare, contagious cancer, called devil facial tumor disease. The illness has killed thousands of Tasmanian devils since the 1990’s.
Other members of the marsupial family are being studied to see whether milk from animals like koalas and wallabies may also fight superbugs. Previous studies on wallabies have shown similar results.
Wallabies also have cathelicidin peptides.
Grad student Emma Peel, who worked on the research which is published in the Nature journalScientific Reports, said:
“Tammar wallabies have eight of these peptides and opossums have 12.”
It’s a race against the clock for Tasmanian devils, and also for people.
No Matter How, A Solution Is Needed
If something is not done to halt the march of superbugs and the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics soon, killer bacteria could claim 10 million lives by 2050.
Bacteria resistant to all antibiotics was discovered for the first time in the United States this past spring, and a report published earlier this fall revealed that thousands of U.S. deaths from superbugs go unreported every year.
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the U.N.’s World Health Organization, said in September:
“Antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development, and security… We are running out of time.” 
By Julie Fidler