Breast Milk Protein Called HAMLET Helps Kill Dangerous Hospital 'Superbugs'

Human breast milk may hold the key to beating lethal hospital-acquired staph infections, thus adding more legitimacy to what Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, said: “Let your food be your medicine; let your medicine be your food.” 

According to a new study published in the journal PLOS One, a protein-lipid complex called Human Alpha-Lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumor Cells, or HAMLET, increased the effectiveness of proven antibiotic classes such as penicillin and erythromycin in killing MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

Husband-wife team Drs. Anders and Hazeline Hakansson, and PhD student Laura Marks conducted animal and petri dish experiments at University of Buffalo’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in New York and observed an effect so pronounced that drug-resistant superbugs that are insensitive to vancomycin, the "antibiotic of last resort,” regained sensitivity to antibiotics.

Study leader Anders Hakansson has been exploring the immunity-boosting properties in human breast milk since 1994. The protein-lipid complex later named HAMLET was first discovered during his doctoral studies at Catherina Svanborg’s laboratory in Sweden, where it demonstrated the ability to selectively kill both tumor cells and bacteria.

“Our recent study shows that HAMLET is highly effective in weakening MRSA cells, making it possible for well-established antibiotics to finish the job,” Hakansson said.

An earlier Hakansson-led study published in PLOS One in August 2012 illustrated HAMLET’s effectiveness in treating antibiotic-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae, a common and highly virulent bacterium that has long plagued hospitals and long-term care facilities.

How HAMLET Works

HAMLET initiates a chain of chemical reactions that mirror the immune system’s natural ability to cause bacteria cells to self destruct. The process includes an influx of calcium and activation of enzymes that cause bacteria cells to weaken and rupture.

It binds to bacteria including S. pneumonae and S. aureus and stops the flow of ions in and out of the cells. HAMLET also blocks two enzymes that bacteria cells use to obtain energy.

Even across multiple generations, bacteria treated with HAMLET seem unable to develop resistance and die in large numbers. "Because of the long co-evolution of human milk and bacteria that are part of the normal flora, we do not foresee that bacteria will easily become resistant to HAMLET,” Hakansson said.

HAMLET also reduces the necessary dosage of antibiotics by a factor of eight when treating S. pneumoniae and S. aureus. As a naturally occurring agent, HAMLET “… is not associated with the types of toxic side effect that we so frequently see with the high-powered antibiotics needed to kill drug-resistant organisms,” Marks said in a press release.

Asked whether HAMLET is actually sourced from mother’s milk, Hakansson explained that it is synthesized from the same milk sugar found in cow’s milk, and a lipid found in human breast milk and also in certain plants.    

The Problem of Superbugs

When a strong bacteria cell survives antibiotic treatment, it replicates itself, resulting in more resistant later generations. The number of drug-resistance strains is growing, despite nationwide efforts to contain the problem. The number of superbugs has quadrupled since 2003, according to recent data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Grouped as a class known as CRE (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae), these drug-resistant bacteria kill up to 50 percent of the people they infect. Anti-microbial drugs that once cured these infections simply no longer work.

The elderly are especially susceptible to drug-resistant infections, with 18 percent of long-term care facilities reporting CRE cases in the first half of 2012. About 4 percent of U.S. hospitals reported cases during the same period, according to the CDC.

What’s Next?

The University of Buffalo and HAMLET researchers are working together to bring this promising therapy to market, which they hope to accomplish within a couple of years.

UB's Office of Science, Technology Transfer and Economic Outreach (STOR) has filed a provisional patent application detailing HAMLET's antibiotic capabilities, and Anders and Hazeline Hakansson have founded a company called Evincor to further develop it.

The Hakanssons say they have been unable thus far to make bacteria resistant to HAMLET. The next step is to test it on additional strains of S. pneumoniae and S. aureus and expand the in-vivo infection models used for testing.

Anders Hakasson said the FDA is interested in finding solutions to the lethal CRE germ problem as quickly as possible.
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