As more and more cases of antibiotic resistance occur all over the world, experts are looking for the most effective ways to take down superbugs.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed the alarming surge of antibiotic-resistant superbugs a global health crisis.

The WHO said people are confused about the role of antibiotics and the correct way to take them. The misuse of antibiotics has thus spurred the development of drug-resistant superbugs.

Unless antibiotic resistance is managed, the WHO said common infections and curable diseases such as tuberculosis and gonorrhea will become deadly once again.

"It's a real threat today," said Dr. David Agus, an expert on cancer and biotechnology. "It's going to be a bigger threat. Every time somebody has a fever, a doctor can give them an antibiotic. We have to stop that."

Now, a new study in the United Kingdom has found that a certain protein from human breast milk may be the key to successfully combating superbugs.

The Science Behind The Anti-microbial Properties Of Breast Milk

Experts have known for a long time that breast milk is essential to the health of babies. Children who have been breast-fed benefited from an extra layer of protection against disease during the critical months of their life.

Conducted by University College London and the National Physical Laboratory, the new research discovered that the protein fragment lactoferrin destroys fungi, viruses and bacteria at the moment of contact.

Lactoferrin is a component of a protein naturally found in breast milk. The fragment is less than a nanometer across, and it provides breast milk its antibiotic properties.

In this case, lactoferrin is more than just another antibiotic for superbugs to overcome and again become resistant to. Because lactoferrin works so fast - killing the bacteria in a fraction of a second - experts hope that superbugs simply won't have time to develop resistance to it.

Working At A Microscopic Level

Scientists have known about lactoferrin since the 1960s, but it is only now that they have honed in on the properties of the protein.

The research team first isolated the protein from breast milk. The protein is actually present in other liquids in the body as well, such as tears, saliva, and nasal secretions.

Their next step was to turn the highly-potent protein into a form that could still tear apart viruses and bacteria without harming human host cells.

The team engineered the lactoferrin itself into a virus-like form, a capsule, that can distinguish and attack specific, virulent bacteria.

"To monitor the activity of the capsules in real time we developed a high-speed measurement platform using atomic force microscopy," said student Hasan Alkassem, one of the researchers of the study.

Alkassem said their task was not only to make the capsules visible, but to follow how they attack bacteria.

In the end, the special lactoferrin capsules acted as projectiles that destroyed the bacterial membranes with efficiency and at bullet speed, he said.

What's Next For Lactoferrin?

Doctors cannot prescribe lactoferrin to patients just yet, as more research and a battery of safety checks have to be conducted to make sure that the protein is not dangerous.

Still, Alkassem and his team hope that lactoferrin may someday be used to defeat superbugs. Not only that, it may also even be helpful in fighting against other incurable diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, researchers said.

Their findings are published in the journal Chemical Science.

Photo: Shellie Johnson | Flickr

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