TO BE, OR NOT TO BE

THE QUES­TION OF BREAST MILK’S BUG-KILLING POWER

Guru Magazine - - Contents - SHAM­BRA­LYN BAKER

We clear the stage for HAM­LET. Not the play, but a sub­stance that was re­cently dis­cov­ered in hu­man breast milk. Sham­bra­lyn Baker ex­plains how this magic mol­e­cule could mean a novel can­cer treat­ment and the end of the MRSA ‘su­per-bug’.

What do Shakespeare and MRSA have in com­mon? Up un­til now, prob­a­bly noth­ing at all. How­ever, that could all be about to change with the dis­cov­ery of ‘HAM­LET’ – a sub­stance found in hu­man breast milk. This bug-killer may just be the end of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tant bac­te­ria.

From un­der­wa­ter steam vents to rain­forests filled with ex­otic plants, the search for new and bet­ter drugs spans the globe. Now, sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity at Buf­falo, State Univer­sity of New York, have found some­thing that can help fight the ‘ su­per­bug’ MRSA, and it’s pro­duced not in a re­mote for­est, but closer to home – in the hu­man breast. HAM­LET ( Hu­man Al­pha-lac­tal­bu­min Made LEthal to Tu­mor cells) is a sub­stance made of pro­tein and lipid (fat) found in hu­man breast milk. Re­searchers at Lund Univer­sity in Swe­den have dis­cov­ered that it can kill can­cer­ous cells with­out harm­ing healthy cells. Fur­ther­more,

re­search pub­lished in May of this year shows that HAM­LET also makes an­tibi­otics more ef­fec­tive: when the re­searchers used a mix of HAM­LET and methi­cillin (a par­tic­u­lar type of an­tibi­otic) against strains of ‘su­per­bug’ MRSA (Methi­cillin-re­sis­tant Sta­phy­lo­coc­cus au­reus) they found the num­ber of bac­te­ria present re­duced sig­nif­i­cantly. Nor­mally, Sta­phy­lo­coc­cus bac­te­ria are harm­less and sit on the sur­face of the skin, but they have the po­ten­tial to cause a wide va­ri­ety of prob­lems, from mi­nor skin in­fec­tions to sep­sis – and even death. But it is the multi-drug re­sis­tant MRSA that causes real trou­ble, not only be­cause of the harm it can do to our bod­ies, but be­cause it can be so dif­fi­cult to treat.

Killing the un­kil­l­able

MRSA first be­came re­sis­tant to an an­tibi­otic called methi­cillin be­fore be­com­ing im­mune to the ef­fects of other an­tibi­otics. Wor­ry­ingly, even van­comycin, the ‘drug of last re­sort’ (so called be­cause it re­mained ef­fec­tive against MRSA even when other an­tibi­otics were be­gin­ning to fail) is los­ing its fight against MRSA. Such ‘last re­sort’ an­tibi­otics nor­mally work by pre­vent­ing the bac­te­ria from mak­ing the pro­tec­tive cell walls they need to sur­vive. How­ever, some MRSA strains have de­vel­oped the power of an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance: they can con­tinue to make ef­fec­tive cell walls even when an­tibi­otics are present. So how does HAM­LET help th­ese an­tibi­otics re­gain their po­tency? It blocks spe­cial pumps that MRSA uses to re­move those chem­i­cals

that are toxic to it (in this case, the an­tibi­otics). With their detox sys­tem out of com­mis­sion, the an­tibi­otics can start to ac­cu­mu­late in­side the MRSA – and have their de­sired ef­fect. One of the big chal­lenges when it comes to fight­ing MRSA is that it can evolve to be­come im­mune to an­tibi­otics. As a re­sult, MRSA usu­ally forces doc­tors to ro­tate through mul­ti­ple an­tibi­otics un­til they even­tu­ally find a drug-cock­tail that works. And the more they use that par­tic­u­lar cock­tail, the faster MRSA gains re­sis­tance. The great thing about HAM­LET is that MRSA can­not be­come im­mune to it. It’s the equiv­a­lent of forcibly over­rid­ing the fire­wall on a com­puter: HAM­LET forces the bac­te­ria to be­come sus­cep­ti­ble to an­tibi­otics by over­rid­ing their usual de­fense mech­a­nism. The re­searchers also found that even af­ter up­ping the dose of methi­cillin (some­thing that would nor­mally en­cour­age the bac­te­ria to be­come re­sis­tant) the bac­te­ria re­mained sus­cep­ti­ble to it – as long as HAM­LET was also present. As the re­search into the HAM­LET pro­tein con­tin­ues, how many more uses will we find for it? Af­ter all, MRSA is only one type of an­tibi­oti­cre­sis­tant bac­te­ria. Hope­fully HAM­LET will prove ef­fec­tive on other trou­ble­some bugs. And the fact that it was found in breast milk is just one more ex­am­ple of how amaz­ing the hu­man body is.

BE­LOW: An ab­scess caused by me­thi­cillinre­sis­tant Sta­phy­lo­coc­cus au­reus (MRSA) bac­te­ria.

ABOVE: Scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­graph of MRSA and a dead white blood

cell.

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