A superbug-fighting hero may come in the form of a furry Australian marsupial.
Tasmanian devils — yes, the real-life (and much cuter) versions of the Looney Tunes cartoon character, Taz — have been hiding an impressive and potentially life-saving secret in their pouches.
Tasmanian devils are born into a filthy environment before they're able to develop a strong immune system. Lucky for these joeys — and almost all marsupials — their mothers' milk and pouch contains peptides that act like natural antibiotics — called cathelicidins — that keep them healthy and free of infections.
Those cathelicidins might not only help Tasmanian devils fight off harmful pathogens, according to an October 2016 study: Researchers may be able to use the cathelicidins in marsupials' milk and pouches to develop treatments for antibiotic-resistant superbugs (aka those super scary infections that are estimated to kill 10 million humans by 2050 because few to no drugs can destroy them). So yeah, you could say this is kind of important.
After identifying six cathelicidins in the Tasmanian devils' pouches, researchers created synthetic versions and tested them on 25 bacterial and six fungal strains. Of those six, one cathelicidin was able to destroy a wide range of bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) — both of which are becoming more common with each passing year.
So what does this mean for us? Researchers are hoping to characterize the superbug-fighting properties of Tasmanian devil cathelicidins for drug development. After seeing they can kill as powerful bacteria as MRSA and VRE, the next step is looking even closer into the antibacterial activity to create treatments that work on humans.
The Immune System That Keeps on Giving
Unfortunately, despite having such triumphant immune systems, Tasmanian devils are on the endangered species list — there are only about 50,000 left in Tasmania — largely due to devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), which has been wiping out the population in the wild. The ulcerated tumors grow on their faces, surrounding their mouth, ears, and eyes.
There is some good news for the furry marsupials, though: According to new research from the University of Tasmania, they're slowly but surely developing an immune resistance to DFTD. Researchers tested 52 Tasmanian devils, and 6 of them had antibodies against the disease. With this being the first evidence that they are, in fact, starting to conquer the transmissible cancer, it just goes to show how impressive and research-worthy their immune systems are.
With the help of these little marsupials, we could soon take on deadly bacteria. We're all about saving animals, but this time around our fur-covered friends may be saving us.