Scientists are hoping to develop new antibiotic drugs after discovering how sugars in breast milk could kill superbugs.
It’s known how a mother’s breast milk has been found to contain natural antibiotics that could fight off drug-resistant diseases. It includes a ‘special cocktail of ingredients’ that help babies fight infection.
Previous studies found that certain proteins in breast milk killed bugs, but in a new study, scientists have found that sugars in the milk also have an anti-bacterial effect.
Now, researchers are doing further studies with the hope of harnessing the properties in breast milk to develop new antibiotic drugs.
A specialist panel was created by the government to tackle antibiotic-resistant bugs that kill 700,000 people a year across the world.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University, in the US, explained that among the advantages of breast milk antibiotics is that they are very safe to take, unlike most antibiotics.
“This is the first example of generalised, antimicrobial activity on the part of the carbohydrates in human milk. One of the remarkable properties of these compounds is that they are clearly non-toxic, unlike most antibiotics,” Assistant professor of Chemistry, Steven Townsend said.
The results of the study were presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington DC, on Sunday and published in the journal ACS Infectious Diseases.
Researchers tested the different breast milk that were donated and they analysed the different sugar compounds – called oligosaccharides – which had varying levels of effectiveness.
Some worked by directly killing the bacteria, while others attacked the ‘biofilm’, which are formed when several different bacteria huddle together – creating the slimy substance biofilm, which acts to protect the bacteria.
“Our results show that these sugars have a one-two punch.
“First, they sensitise the target bacteria and then they kill them. Biologist sometimes call this ‘synthetic lethality’ and there is a major push to develop new antimicrobial drugs with this capability. ‘Sensitising’ helps weaken bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics,” Professor Townsend explained.
The study found that two proteins isolated from breast milk — lactoferrin, which is also active against viruses and fungal infections as well as bacteria, and HAMLET – Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumor Cells, which is active against tumour cells — are showing promise as antibiotics.