New hope in superbug fight: Tasmanian devil milk

Tasmanian devils may hold the key to fighting human superbugs.

Story highlights

  • Peptides in Tasmanian devil milk killed human pathogens that are antibiotic-resistant
  • More research will look at the milk of other marsupials

(CNN)Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck's occasional enemy, the voracious Tasmanian devil, may pose a threat to something we'd actually like to see disappear from this planet: the superbug.

Researchers in Australia have suspected that Tasmanian devils and other marsupials carry particularly powerful chemicals in their bodies to help their young grow.
    Marsupials are those mammals that are born incredibly early in their development and grow into the furry creatures you'd recognize only after spending a couple months suckling inside their mothers' pouches; think kangaroos and opossums.
      Australia is home to hundreds of native marsupial species, including the Tasmanian devil, a brown or blackish furry creature that looks a bit like a baby bear, with stocky legs and sharp teeth.
      Much like the "Looney Tunes" cartoon, Tasmanian devils may best be known for their prodigious appetites. Sometimes called the "vacuum cleaner of the forest," the world's largest carnivorous marsupial eats birds, snakes, fish and bugs. And it consumes everything: bones, fur, organs and meat.
      Superbugs are bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotic treatment. Because the drugs have been overused, many bacteria have adapted, making the drugs less effective. At least 23,000 Americans die each year due to these infections.
        What led scientists to investigate the Tasmanian devil's potential to kill superbugs was not its appetite, but its pouch. Born about three weeks into a mother's pregnancy, tiny Tasmanian devils, known as imps, must crawl up through their mother's fur to this pouch, where they will suckle and continue to grow for about four months.
        The new home is far from sterile. Studies have shown that a Tasmanian devil's pouch contains a significant amount of bacteria, including pathogens that could hurt the underdeveloped young. Scientists assumed there must be immune system-boosting qualities in the mother's milk to help the vulnerable young develop in that environment.