Researchers have developed an antibiotic from breast milk capable of destroying drug-resistant bacteria.
The medical breakthrough comes amid a growing fear of lethal antibiotic-resistance in hospitals.
The protein, called lactoferrin, effectively kills bacteria, fungi and even viruses on contact.
The antibiotic protein is what makes breast milk so important in keeping babies healthy during their first months of life.
Reasearchers from the National Physical Laboratory and University College London fitted the antiobiotic into a capsule to target specific bacteria without affecting nearby human cells.
Though lactoferrin has been known to biologists since the 1960s, this study was the first to hone in on the element of the protein specifically concerned with fighting disease.
First, the researchers isolated the protein, which is also present in saliva, tears and “nasal secretions” (snot, in layman’s terms). The next step was to engineer the highly potent protein into a form that could still nuke bacteria and viruses, but without harming any human host cells.
To achieve this, the biologists learned from their enemy, working the lactoferrin itself into a virus-like form engineered to recognise and target specific, virulent bacteria.
One of the project contributors, Hasan Alkassem, explained the difficulties that his team faced in working at such a microscopic level, and how these were overcome. He said: “To monitor the activity of the capsules in real time we developed a high-speed measurement platform using atomic force microscopy.”
“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.”
Of course, your doctor can’t prescribe you a course of lactoferrin just yet. There’s a huge amunt of research and a battery of safety checks to get through first. But the researchers hope that as well as defeating superbugs the protein will one day help to combat diseases, such as sickle-cell anaemia, that are currently considered incurable.