Zoo animal faeces contain bacteria-fighting viruses that could stop infections and prevent 7,000 amputations in Britain each year, scientists believe.
Experts from Sheffield University have been hunting for viruses called bacteriophages, which burrow into bacteria and hijack their biology.
Scientists have long-believed that phages could be useful for killing bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
The team examined faecal matter from a number of animals at Yorkshire Wildlife Park which contained phages capable of killing the bacterial species that cause foot ulcers.
Around 75,000 patients per week are treated for diabetic foot ulcers in England alone, with many not responding to normal antibiotic treatment. This results in around 7,000 amputations a year and a cost of £1 billion.
Prof Graham Stafford, chairman in molecular microbiology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Despite the smell, it turns out that the faecal matter of endangered species could hold the key to killing infectious bacteria that are otherwise resistant to antibiotics.
“So far we have managed to find antibacterial viruses from Guinea baboon, giraffe, lemur, Visakan pigs, and our favourite, the cuddly binturongs and are working hard to develop these into viable treatments for patients whose next option is the loss of a toe, foot or leg.”
Phages are the most common biological entities in nature, having been shown to effectively fight and destroy drug-resistant bacteria.
Phage therapy has been used a handful of times in the UK to treat sepsis, as well as in a small number of diabetic foot infections. However, this is the first time researchers have investigated new phages from the waste of zoo species.
The study is part of a wider drive in UK Bioscience to find new antimicrobials to combat the major global challenge of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). It is a problem that is expected to increase in coming years, potentially making operations too dangerous to perform.
Dr Dave Partridge, consultant microbiologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Diabetic foot infections are often a challenge to treat and patients may need to have surgery to amputate part of the foot or leg, which can have a huge impact on their quality of life.
“If bacteriophage therapy proves successful, this could provide us with the ability to treat these infections in a different way, shortening courses of antibiotics and potentially avoiding the need for surgery.”
The team said they would be testing several more phages before submitting their work for peer review and publication.