Researchers are unpicking the science behind the anti-microbial properties of breast milk / Getty Images

Researchers claim it could even fight terminal, 'incurable' diseases like sickle-cell anaemia

A protein found in human breast milk could be used to destroy drug-resistant superbugs, according to research.

The research, carried out by the National Physical Laboratory and University College London, shows that lactoferrin, a component of a protein which naturally occurs in breast milk, destroys bacteria, fungi and viruses as soon as it touches them.

It has long been known that breast milk is vital to the health of young babies. For millennia, breast-fed children have benefited from an additional layer of protection against disease during the crucial first months of life.

But the new study hones in on lactoferrin, a fragment of a protein less than a nanometre across which gives breast milk its antibiotic properties.

Many people in the medical community are deeply concerned by the potentially lethal threat of drug-resistant superbugs, which evolve rapidly to defeat any antibiotics we throw at them. Some analysts have even suggested that bacterial resistance poses as serious a threat as climate change.

But in this sense, lactoferrin is more than just another antibiotic for hospital-dwelling superbugs to overcome. Because the protein works so fast, tearing bacteria apart in a fraction of a second, it's hoped that superbugs simply won't have time to develop a resistance to it.

Though lactoferrin has been known to biologists since the 1960s, this study was the first to hone in on the element of the protein specifically concerned with fighting disease. 

First, the researchers isolated the protein, which is also present in saliva, tears and "nasal secretions" (snot, in layman's terms). The next step was to engineer the highly potent protein into a form that could still nuke bacteria and viruses, but without harming any human host cells.

To achieve this, the biologists learned from their enemy, working the lactoferrin itself into a virus-like form engineered to recognise and target specific, virulent bacteria.

Antibiotics crisis is global

One of the project contributors, Hasan Alkassem, explained the difficulties that his team faced in working at such a microscopic level, and how these were overcome. He said: "To monitor the activity of the capsules in real time we developed a high-speed measurement platform using atomic force microscopy."

"The challenge was not just to see the capsules, but to follow their attack on bacterial membranes. The result was striking: the capsules acted as projectiles porating the membranes with bullet speed and efficiency."

Of course, your doctor can't prescribe you a course of lactoferrin just yet. There's a huge amunt of research and a battery of safety checks to get through first. But the researchers hope that as well as defeating superbugs the protein will one day help to combat diseases, such as sickle-cell anaemia, that are currently considered incurable.

Sickle-cell anaemia is a hereditary condition affecting the red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. They are malformed (sickle-shaped) and don't replenish as quickly as they ought to, creating a shortage ("anaemia").

This results in tissue and organ damage, weakness and fainting, increased risk of strokes and spells of intense pain which last for 5-7 days on average but can roll on for many months. Life expectancy for someone with the condition is not much over 50.