There have been repeated warnings on the overuse of antibiotics and the development of bacteria that are resistant to all known antimicrobial drugs. The problem is so big that some have even suggested that we are close to entering a “post-antibiotic era” in which even infections that are currently routine and easy to cure will become deadly and untreatable. Now, a newly developed antibiotic derived from human breast milk could be the answer to fighting resistant bacterial strains.
The new research builds upon previous studies looking into how breast milk helps newborn babies to fight infection. The key to this is a particular protein called lactoferrin, which can effectively kill bacteria, fungi, and even viruses. While this has been known about for some time, a group of researchers from the National Physical Laboratory and University College London have re-engineered it to make it more effective.
It turns out that lactoferrin is able to kill the microorganisms on contact by punching holes in their protective cell membrane, something that the researchers were able to exploit. To do this, they manipulated the protein into a virus-like capsule, able to recognize and home in on specific bacteria, but leaving the surrounding human cells well alone. The hope is that the new technique could provide delivery vehicles for other medicines that target pathogens.
“To monitor the activity of the capsules in real time we developed a high-speed measurement platform using atomic force microscopy,” said Hasan Alkassem, one of the leaders of the study explaining the new technique in Chemical Science. “The challenge was not just to see the capsules, but to follow their attack on bacterial membranes. The result was striking: the capsules acted as projectiles porating the membranes with bullet speed and efficiency.”
The researchers claim that the speed at which the protein is able to identify, attack, and destroy the pathogens means that it is very difficult for them to build up resistance. It might be a while, however, before the engineered protein is prescribed by doctors. This is because it will now need to undergo yet more testing and research in order to check out the efficiency of it, and to make certain of its safety.
Many healthcare professionals agree that hospitals, doctors, and researchers need to work together internationally to make sure we do not run out of effective antimicrobial medicines. Some suggest that we need to develop at least 10 new antibiotics every decade to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving microorganisms.