Modern antibiotics work by attacking specific parts of pathogens. While this works in most cases, some pathogens merely develop resistance to the antibiotics. Recently, biologists developed an innovative and promising way to combat these terrifying “superbugs.” Can ancient secrets of the medical world save lives today?
Evolutionary Arms Race: Superbugs versus Antibiotics
Superbugs present a steep challenge to modern medicine. Through a process of evolution, they learn how to defend themselves. This leads to a sort of “evolutionary arms race” with the superbugs on one side and antibiotics and adaptive immune systems on the other.
Now, a team of biologists from the Victoria Department of Primary Industries have proposed a new method for battling superbugs. They want to utilize ancient secrets. In other words, they wants to make use of molecules from the strongest “innate immune systems” found in nature. Innate immune systems, which are considered “an evolutionarily older defense strategy,” defend against infection in a more generic way than antibiotics or the adaptive immune system.
“The molecules of the innate immune system use simple chemistry to target the lipids in cell membranes. They can either disrupt and weaken bacterial membranes, or subtly alter the properties of the host’s healthy cells so that pathogens can no longer attack them.” ~ Wendy Zukerman, New Scientist
Unfortunately, the animals that tend to possess the strongest innate immune systems are only distantly related to humans. Thus, their molecules would most likely prove toxic if introduced into people.
Ancient Secrets of…Wallabies?
So, a team of researchers led by Professor Ben Cocks have focused their efforts solely on mammals. One promising candidate is the wallaby. A baby wallaby lacks an adaptive immune system. Worse, it lives in its mother’s pouch, which is filled with “bacteria closely related to the superbugs affecting humans in hospitals.” But thanks to their innate immune systems, they manage to survive and thrive nonetheless.
The wallaby innate immune system contains numerous cathelicidin peptides that appear effective in battling superbugs without causing toxicity to humans. The research team discovered that five of these peptides may have evolved from a single ancestral peptide. Working backwards, they managed to reproduce an ancient secret…the original peptide. This “resurrected” peptide has not been seen since the djarthia, a distant wallaby ancestor, roamed the Earth some 59 million years ago.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
59 million years? That’s definitely an ancient secret. In fact, it’s just a couple of million years younger than the dinosaurs! And since this extinct peptide has been out of commission for so long, any resistance built up by bacteria has probably been long forgotten. So, it’s no surprise that the ancient peptide appears amazingly effective and broad-based.
“Lab tests showed it destroyed six of seven multidrug-resistant bacteria, and was 10 to 30 times more potent than modern antibiotics such as tetracycline.” ~ Wendy Zukerman, New Scientist
Going forward, Cocks hopes to use computers and synthetic biology to recreate even more therapeutics from ancient mammals. For the time being, this new peptide will most likely be used to battle mastitis, a serious problem in the dairy industry. But someday soon, this ancient secret may enable humanity to overcome a wide variety of superbugs.