Scientists are on the search for new ways to fight superbugs, and have discovered a protein in platypus milk that could save lives. Superbugs, a catch-all term for antibiotic resistant bacteria, increasingly threaten our existence. According to the CDC, “each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.”
Platypus have a unique feeding system. Instead of teats, the milk concentrates in their belly, and they feed their young by sweating the milk out. Scientists think that this feeding system produces antibacterial protein in the milk “in order to protect the young from the possibility of infection. When mammals evolved teats, a sterile delivery system for milk, the protein was no longer as important in an evolutionary sense.”
According to Janet Newman, CSIRO scientist and lead author on the research, “Platypus are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry.” National Geographic describes the platypus “as a hodgepodge of more familiar species” such as the duck, beaver, and otter. Male platypus are venomous and have stingers on their feet that can deliver poisonous blows, which is a pretty nifty defense mechanism I wish I had.
The future is dirt. A research team at Rockefeller University has found a potential new class of antibiotics in soil, named malacidins, that can effectively fight superbugs. Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat to the world. According to the CDC, in the U.S. alone 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria and over 3,000 people die each year as a result. WIRED does a good job of describing the potentially very real grim future:
We’re rewinding to a world where death begins in childbirth, where premature babies die, where newborns go blind from gonorrhea. Routine injuries become life-threatening infections. You could lose a limb, or your life, from a careless slip with a paring knife or an accidental fall in India. The risks of organ transplants and medical implants would outweigh any potential benefit. Go in for routine dental surgery and end up in a body bag.
Too dark? The WHO has a very cute 1 minute video explaining the basics of antibiotic resistance with giant cartoon superbugs. Scientists have been on a race against time to find new antibiotics.
The research team, led by Dr. Sean Brady, tested the compounds on a rat infected with MRSA, and were able to eliminate the infection. However, Dr. Brady says, “It is a long, arduous road from the initial discovery of an antibiotic to a clinically used entity.” But he is optimistic about the future of antibiotics, and says, “Our idea is, there’s this reservoir of antibiotics out in the environment we haven’t accessed yet.”
We are all dependent on antibiotics. Many of us likely take them for granted. As discussed here and here, the world is running out of effective antibiotics. Increasing antibiotic resistance means not being able to treat what we consider today to be regular, run of the mill infections.
Chris Linaman, a “superbug survivor” has shared his story to raise awareness of the danger and devastation of antibiotic resistance. Linaman was recovering from ACL surgery with no complications, until one morning when he woke up with a massively swollen knee. He was diagnosed with MRSA and had emergency surgery. A few days after being sent home from the hospital, he developed a high fever of 105 degrees and was found almost unconscious. As Linaman describes:
Luckily, the spinal tap showed the infection had not yet gotten to my brain. But I needed to have even more surgeries to get rid of it, and I also lost my epidermis—the outer layer of my skin—over my entire body, due to an allergic reaction to the antibiotic they were using to treat me…My leg muscles were wrecked from all of the surgeries, and it took extensive physical therapy to get me back to anything resembling normal…
Beyond the physical trauma, the whole ordeal also nearly ruined our family financially, and it was emotionally devastating as well. At the time, our two kids were just 2 and 4 years old, and they didn’t understand what was going on. It still breaks my heart to think about it. Those were the darkest days of my life, and, honestly, it’s hard to believe that I’m still here…
As horrible as my MRSA infection was, I’m the “good” outcome—I survived. Way too many others have not.
After recovering, Linaman went on to work as an executive chef at a medical center. One thing Linaman and other experts have stressed is the importance of reducing animal use of antibiotics. Linaman created a policy that “prioritizes bringing healthy food to our community and gives preference to food producers who are working to reduce antibiotic use.”
So we need to do anything and everything we can to conserve these lifesaving drugs so that they work when they’re needed—that includes making sure antibiotics are used appropriately and only when necessary—both in people and in animals.”