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Breast Milk Protein Could Help Fight Superbug

By delivering antibiotics alongside a protein found in breast milk, researchers could fight MRSA in mice

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Photo: CDC

Good news for all the mice out there reading science news on the internet today. You may soon be freed of the specter of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureau, commonly known as MRSA—the deadly superbug that fights off antibiotics and can leave you covered in open sores.

In new research scientists have managed to defeat MRSA’s antibiotic resistance, making it susceptible to the antibiotic methicillin once more. The trick, says Science Magazine, was to deliver the drug alongside a dose of a protein found in breast milk.

Using the breast milk protein (known as HAMLET) and the antibiotic together made the MRSA infection in a mouse’s nose 10 times more susceptible to the drug than without the protein.

Bacteria seem to have a tough time developing resistance to HAMLET, and the complex doesn’t have toxic side effects because therapeutic doses are no more than what a baby would drink in milk. That means a HAMLET-and-antibiotic cocktail could be the next approach for scary superbugs.

The HAMLET protein, says Inside Science, was purified from human breast milk. The protein “sensitizes the bacteria to the antibiotics that they used to be resistant to, so suddenly, you can use the old again,” said Anders Hakansson, one of the study’s authors.” Scientists already knew that breast milk does a bunch of good things for babies’ immune systems, but research like this could help bring those benefits post-weening.

In MRSA, the researchers believe that HAMLET attacks pumps found in a bacteria’s cell membrane. These pumps keep the material inside the cell and the solution outside the cell in a vital balance, thereby controlling the flow of nutrients and toxins into or out of the cell.

But HAMLET isn’t strong enough to kill the MRSA cells, said Hakansson. He thinks the glitch in the cell’s pumps may allow antibiotics to gain a foothold.

Now, for all the humans reading this: the research is promising, and Inside Science suggests the potential future application of this approach could help us fight back against MRSA. But, as with all early-stage medical researc this is far from being ready for human experiments, let alone widespread medical application. So, no self-medicating with breast milk, people.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Attack of the Superbugs
If Cooties Were Real, What Disease Would They Be?

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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