Miraculous Platypus Milk?

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers from Australia’s national science agency suggest a particular protein in platypus milk with unique antibacterial properties may be useful in the battle against drug resistance
  • Beyond platypus milk, two other unique branches of research for potentially useful antibiotic compounds involve dirt and Komodo dragon blood
  • You can do your part in the battle against drug-resistant bacteria by avoiding CAFO meat and using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary to treat bacterial infections; never use antibiotics for viral infections
  • Because a strong immune system is your best defense against infection, keep in mind your choices around diet, exercise, sleep, stress and vitamin D all play a role in strengthening your immunity, which will help your body fight harmful bacteria

By Dr. Mercola

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Molecular biologists from Australia's national science agency say platypus milk may help fight antibiotic resistance.1 This news is surprising in more than one way. First, you may not have realized this iconic ducklike creature, native to Australia, is one of just two living mammals able to both lay eggs and produce milk. (The echidna, or spiny anteater, is the other.)

Second, an unusual "sweating it out" feeding system used by the platypus to nourish its young is thought to be a factor in the unique antibacterial properties discovered in its milk. Given the serious nature of drug resistance and the declining interest of pharmaceutical companies with respect to developing new antibiotics, it makes sense researchers are considering every possible alternative to fight superbugs. Besides platypus milk, researchers are also scouring dirt and testing Komodo dragon blood for antibiotic compounds.

Antibiotic Resistance Is a Serious Issue

The rates of infectious diseases known to be unresponsive to antibiotics continue to skyrocket. Drug resistance and superbugs are a serious issue that could have dire consequences on human health — including yours. Infection-causing bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses continue to evolve and resist the drugs meant to contain them. The results: About 2 million Americans are diagnosed and 23,000 die each year from drug-resistant infections.2 Similarly, drug-resistant infections kill 25,000 Europeans annually.3

Conservatively, at least 700,000 people worldwide die each year from drug resistance associated with illnesses such as AIDS, bacterial infections, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis (TB).4 Sadly, the numbers may be even higher since incident rates may not be consistently tracked in impoverished areas and refugee camps where the spread of disease and infection can be rampant.

While you may not be able to control the spread of malaria or TB on a faraway continent, you can take responsibility for an aspect of drug resistance that is under your influence — prescription antibiotics requested by and dispensed personally to you, as well as those in your food.

Many Illnesses Do Not Require Antibiotics

Public Health England (PHE) says up to one-fifth of antibiotic prescriptions are written unnecessarily because most of the illnesses would heal on their own without drugs.5 Similarly, in the U.S. the problem of drug resistance centers around improper use of antibiotics, particularly to treat viral infections like the common cold or flu. The overuse of antibiotics in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is another significant factor contributing to drug resistance.

Even though antibiotics have zero effect on viral infections, many insist on obtaining a prescription anyway. Under most conditions, your body will recover from viral infections when the illness has run its course. Taking antibiotics for viral infections is unnecessary and dangerous since it contributes to the problem of drug resistance.

Said professor Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director at PHE, "We don't often need antibiotics for common conditions. The fact is if you take an antibiotic when you don't need it then you're more likely to have an infection the antibiotics [won't] work for over the coming months."6

With respect to infections your body can handle, Cosford recommends you get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids. His advice is sound because if you use even a single round of antibiotics a year, you are contributing to the development of drug resistance. For that reason, it is best to reserve antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial infections only. About the overuse of antibiotics in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says:7

"Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs used in human medicine and can be lifesaving drugs. However, up to 50 percent of the time, antibiotics are not optimally prescribed, often done so when not needed [and given with] incorrect dosing or duration."

Believe It or Not: Platypus Milk Could Help in the Development of New Antibiotics

In 2010, Australian researchers discovered the milk of a duck-billed platypus might offer a potential solution to the looming problem of antibiotic resistance.8 Now, as presented in the journal Structural Biology Communications,9 researchers from Australia's national science agency — Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) — have gone a step further to successfully isolate a particular protein in the milk with properties that may be useful in creating antibiotic drugs.

The platypus is one of just two living mammals — called monotremes — able to both lay eggs and produce milk. Because they don't have teats, platypuses concentrate milk in their belly and then sweat it out to feed their young. "Platypuses are such weird animals that it would make sense for them to have weird biochemistry," said Janet Newman, Ph.D., lead study author and director of CSIRO's Collaborative Crystallization Center.10

Given the exposure baby platypuses have to external bacteria, scientists think the unique feeding system contributes to the beneficial antibacterial properties found in the mother's milk. The antibacterial milk protein seems to act as a first line of defense against potentially harmful bacteria. In analyzing the milk protein, researchers uncovered "a quirk" they say has not been seen in the more than 100,000 different protein structures known to biologists.

Newman and her team discovered a novel three-dimensional fold they dubbed the "Shirley Temple," after the 1930s American child actress known for her perfect ringlets. The platypus milk protein structure boasts its own curling ringlets. About the research, Newman stated:11,12

"[The shape is] interesting, because it's the shape of proteins that dictate their function. [T]his discovery increases our knowledge of protein structures in general and will go on to inform other drug-discovery work … By taking a closer look at their milk, we've characterized a new protein that has unique antibacterial properties with the potential to save lives."

Dirt and Komodo Dragon Blood Also Possess Antibiotic Properties

A study published in early 2018 in Nature Microbiology13 highlights another hopeful discovery in the battle against superbugs: antibiotic compounds in dirt. After studying 2,000 soil samples, researchers from New York's Rockefeller University and New Jersey-based Rutgers University have uncovered a potential new class of antibiotics called malacidins.

In tests with infected lab rats, malacidins were shown to attack and kill many types of superbugs, including the dreaded methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). When applied to cuts in the skin of lab rats, malacidins were not only able to sterilize the wounds, but they also showed zero signs of resistance after three weeks of exposure.14 This marks the first time scientists have successfully identified a bacterial species in dirt with the potential to become a therapeutic drug.

In a separate body of research, scientists from Virginia's George Mason University (GMU) have uncovered properties in Komodo dragon blood with promise for treating infected wounds. After creating a synthetic compound based on a molecule in the dragon blood known for its antimicrobial activity, scientists discovered it promoted healing in mice bearing infected wounds.15

The 2017 study, published in the journal npj Biofilms and Microbiomes,16 suggests the protein could potentially be developed into an antibiotic. The Komodo dragon, which is found on five islands in Indonesia, has more than 50 bacterial strains in its mouth and rarely succumbs to illness. Due to their blood being filled with proteins called antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) — an infection defense produced by all living creatures — Komodo dragons are also immune to the bites of other dragons.17

"Komodo peptides are unlike any others. The animals have bacteria in their mouth in the wild, they live in a challenging environment and they survive," says associate professor and principle investigator Barney Bishop, GMU department of chemistry and biochemistry, one of the scientists to first take notice of the unusual peptide characteristics in Komodo blood in 2013. "If we can find out why they're able to fight bacteria and what makes them so successful, we can use that knowledge to develop antibiotics."18

Big Pharma Less Interested in Developing New Antibiotics

While the research noted above may seem promising, it is much too early to tell if the antibacterial compounds from platypus milk, dirt and Komodo dragon blood will be successfully transformed into useful human therapies, whether it be antibiotic drugs, topical medications or the like. So far, the research has gone only as far as lab experiments involving mice.

While the early signs are promising, it literally takes years for molecules like malacidins to be developed, tested and approved for use as a medication. According to The New York Times,19 the number of antibiotics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has steadily declined during the past two decades.

Most large pharmaceutical (Big Pharma) companies, including Pfizer, which was long known for its leadership in the development of antibiotics, have moved on to other more profitable drugs, such as those used in cancer treatment.

Cancer drugs are a source of profitability that life-saving antibiotics most likely will never be. The infrequency of antibiotic use is likely another significant factor in Big Pharma's waning interest in these drugs. Writing for The New York Times, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said:20

"Unlike drugs for cholesterol or high blood pressure, or insulin for diabetes, which are taken every day for life, antibiotics tend to be given for a short time, a week, or at most, a few months. So, profits have to be made on brief usage.

Furthermore, any new antibiotics that might be developed to fight … drug-resistant bacteria are likely to be used very sparingly under highly controlled circumstances, to slow the development of resistant bacteria and extend their usefulness. This also limits the amount that can be sold."

The Future of Antibiotic Resistance

While the development of new antibiotics is ongoing and necessary, Emanuel notes, as a society we can take steps now to combat the problem of superbugs and drug resistance. Most of these actions require the involvement of doctors, hospitals, government agencies and policy makers. Emanuel suggests the following:21

  • Address the overprescribing of antibiotics, half of which are estimated to be unnecessary
  • Fix the antiquated system currently used to track drug-resistant bacteria
  • Practice proper handwashing, which is vitally important not only in hospitals but also schools, workplaces and other public spaces
  • Reduce the amount of antibiotics used in U.S. animal feed, which not only accounts for 80 percent of the total usage of these drugs nationwide but is also a large contributing factor to the problem of antibiotic resistance

About the unsettling trends away from antibiotic research and development, attending physician and professor Helen Boucher, director of the infectious diseases fellowship program at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's Antimicrobial Resistance Committee, says:22

"The problem of antibiotic resistance continues to grow, and our inability to meet the challenge, in particular with antibiotics, is even greater than it was five years ago. We're coming dangerously close to a time when we [will] have to tell our patients we can't offer therapies we really think they deserve, such as organ transplants, chemotherapy for cancer or neonatal intensive care.

This is incredibly scary. We don't want to get to another preantibiotic era. We need a continuous pipeline of antibiotic development so we will continue to have new drugs to meet the challenge of resistance for our children and their children."

Steps You Can Take to Help Avoid Antibiotic-Resistant Disease

While the problem of antibiotic resistance is an issue requiring high-level, global resolution, the potential impact to you personally is significant and cannot be understated. As such, it's best to focus on areas you can control. First and foremost, your lifestyle choices determine the health of your immune system and the strength of your immune system influences your ability to resist infections.

Below are some strategies you can use to supercharge your immune system. If you aren't doing any of these, pick one and get started today. If you're already making good progress in one or two areas, maybe it's time to add a third. Also, you may want to download my report about how to protect yourself from super germs.

  • Be proactive in addressing stress. Because high levels of stress hormones can diminish your immunity, you may want to create a stress management program. Meditation, prayer, yoga and the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) are all excellent strategies for managing stress.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise improves the circulation of immune cells in your blood. The more effectively these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system will be at locating and eliminating pathogens. A well-rounded fitness plan includes core work, high-intensity interval exercise, stretching and weight training.
  • Get plenty of restorative sleep. Research shows sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or disease. It's impossible to consistently cheat your body of quality sleep and still remain healthy, so make a plan to get around eight hours of sleep a night.
  • Improve your diet. Avoid foods known to tax your immune system, such as grains, processed foods and sugar. Reduce your net carbohydrates (fructose, grains and sugar), moderate your protein intake and increase your healthy fat intake — focusing on saturated and monounsaturated fats from animal and tropical oil sources.
  • Optimize your vitamin D level. Studies have shown inadequate vitamin D can increase your risk for MRSA and other infections. Sensible sun exposure at or around midday is your best source of vitamin D. If you are unable to get regular sun exposure, consider taking an oral vitamin D3 supplement along with vitamin K2 and magnesium. Check your levels at least twice a year to ensure you're in the 60 to 80 nanograms per milliliter range.