An antibiotic developed from human breast milk could combat certain drug-resistant bacteria, British scientists have found.
Tackling antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as superbugs, is a priority for the government. A panel set up by David Cameron forecast that they would cost 10 million lives and £700bn a year worldwide by 2050 if the problem went unchecked.
The breakthrough, by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and University College London, found that the minuscule fragment, less than a nanometre in width, is responsible for giving the protein its anti-microbial properties.
This is what makes breast milk so important in protecting infants from disease in their first months of life. The protein, called lactoferrin, effectively kills bacteria, fungi and even viruses on contact.
After identifying the fragment, scientists re-engineered it into a virus-like capsule that can recognise and target specific bacteria and damage them on contact, but without affecting any surrounding human cells.
Hasan Alkassem, a student who worked on the project, said: “The capsules acted as projectiles … with bullet speed and efficiency.”
The team suggested this could help the fight against antibiotic resistance by serving as “delivery vehicles” for cures. The capsules could even pave the way for treatments for previously incurable conditions such as sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
In an interview with the Times, Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said governments and experts needed to do more to tackle the antibiotics issue. “We need on average 10 new antibiotics every decade. If others do not work with us, it’s not something we can sort on our own,” she said. “This is a global problem. I am optimistic about this. The science is crackable. It’s doable.”
Colin Garner, honorary professor of pharmacology at the University of York and head of the charity Antibiotic Research UK, said the situation was too urgent to wait for international consensus. “The pipeline of new drugs had dried up and the problem was on the brink of becoming intractable, he told the Times.
“My heart sinks when I hear the term ‘global initiative’. How long has it taken the world to come to a sort of consensus about climate change?” he said.
“The problem of antibiotic resistance will be at least as intractable, because each nation takes a different view of what is required.”
The NPL findings are reported in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Science.
Press Association – Saturday 23 January 2016