Antibiotic from breast milk – really?

The headlines read:

New drug to wipe out superbugs – antibiotic ‘bullet’ created from breast milk (The Times)

Breast milk could wipe out hospital superbugs and even incurable diseases (Express)

Breast milk protein could be used in fight against antibiotic resistance (Guardian)

Breast milk protein could destroy antibiotic resistant superbugs (Independent)

Drug resistant bugs destroyed by new antibiotic from breast milk discovered by British scientists (Mail)

The stories themselves contained little information on what this new antibiotic was. The original story seems to have come from an interview with the Times but all the newspaper reports were remarkably similar containing all the same quotes and statistics. In fact they were all so similar that if I had seen these in student essays I would have very good grounds for a case of plagiarism. This is makes it a pretty good bet that it all came from a press release that was copied from one news outlet to another – a common practice it seems.

The report on the Express website included a video clip of Dr Freya Harrison, of the “School of Life Science” who appeared to be proclaiming her surprise about how powerful the medication was. When I checked however, Dr Harrison had nothing to do with the so called breast milk antibiotic. She is in fact a respected academic at the University of Nottingham’s Ancient Biotics Project. The clip was about the antimicrobial properties of some ancient remedy, undefined in the video, and completely unrelated to the story.

This story had done the rounds as I also found it on websites such as The Economic Times Pharmaceuticals section, where incidentally they had linked the story in error to the Royal Society instead of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The gist of the story seems to be that a breast-milk protein called lactoferrin was found to “kill bacteria and viruses on contact.” Most reports said it was developed jointly between the National Physical Laboratory and University College London. Since the antimicrobial action of lactoferrin has been known for a long time, I wondered why this was considered a breakthrough and so I dug a little deeper.

The original paper that caused all this excitement was published in Chemical Science and can be found here. It was a little tricky to track down from the limited information given in the press, as any search using “breast milk” came up blank (or to websites I’m not going to mention!). The paper is very technical and I am sure journalists without a great deal of specialisation could not interpret it. I am a pharmacologist and I admit I had to spend some time on the various technical terms before I could grasp the meaning. This is normal with a scientific publication as it’s meant for the science community not the lay public.

The antimicrobial is in fact a very innovative piece of protein engineering exploiting a naturally occurring protein called lactoferrin. Although, as I said above, lactoferrin is indeed found in breast milk, it is also found in saliva but I guess a headline proclaiming a new wonder drug coming from spit doesn’t have the same appeal to the media. Essentially the science behind this has nothing to do with breast milk at all other than the protein can be found there. I wonder, when penicillin was first discovered, if the headline was “pneumonia cured by mouldy bread?”

Lactoferrin was engineered so it formed a self assembling virus-like structure they called plastic peptide capsules. The researchers chose lactoferrin because it has antimicrobial properties in that it binds to the surface of bacteria and it is non-haemolytic (does not burst red blood cells). Once bound, it punches a hole into the bacterial cell wall. This will kill the bacteria but the virus-like structure could also deliver a siRNA payload. siRNA (Small Interfering RNA) is a nucleic acid that interferes with the expression of certain genes. It was a serendipitous discovered by Richard Jorgensen when he was investigating stippling on the petals of petunias. Jorgensen won the Nobel Prize in 2006.

The intrinsic therapeutic properties of siRNA are well recognised but the nature of these molecules makes them very difficult to deliver to their biological target. This new structurally engineered protein may be one approach for siRNA delivery but the researchers were careful to point out that this was a conceptual design.

The real story was therefore far more interesting and exciting than the newspapers actually reported. This is real cutting edge science where molecules are constructed for specific functions. Like virtually all of science, it wasn’t a breakthrough rather than a step in the painstaking process of research. But there was not a whisper of this in any of the media reports I could find. It was, I guess, just easier for the journalist to take the original story, jiggle a few words around and go to press without worrying if it was accurate or not.

Does it matter that the press didn’t report what was a highly technical piece of science properly? Well, yes, it is very important. Surveys over many years have shown that the public’s main source of information on science comes from the general media (eg Ipos MORI Survey, commissioned by the Government Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014). If the press cannot be bothered to do their job properly then how can the public’s understanding of science be anything than corrupted. This was exemplified by a comment (on the Mail website admittedly) that said, “there are so many amazing natural cures for a huge variety of ailments, but big pharma will mock and deride them on a massive scale so that anyone who praises natural remedies is deemed to be a nut bag….” Ironically, the truth behind the story was not about a natural cure, but a highly engineered protein that may one day be developed by the Pharmaceutical Industry to treat serious disease.

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