A small biotech company has very big plans to save the world, starting with piglets and a special product made from pineapple root.

Anatara Lifesciences (ASX:ANR) announced this week it was in negotiations with Zoetis to sign a worldwide distribution and marketing deal for its Detach treatment.

Zoetis is a breakaway of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that specialises in animal drugs.

Big news, certainly — and the company’s share price jumped accordingly by about 35 per cent to a high of $1.25.

But Anatara chairman Dr Mel Bridges says the potential Zoetis deal is just one salvo in a much bigger fight against what he calls, with no exaggeration, “Armageddon”.

“The biggest issue facing mankind going forward over the next 20 years is the rise of bugs that have become antibiotic-resistant or developed antimicrobial resistance,” he told Stockhead.

“What we as humans have created, or what scientists have created, is our own firestorm.”

Antimicrobial resistance is the problem of bacteria and viruses mutating to become immune to drugs, leaving doctors with no way to kill them.

The World Health Organisation calls it “an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society”.

Dr Bridges describes it with more colour: “If you were going to make a movie about it, you’d call it The Rise of the Superbugs.”

But what does it have to do with piglets?

Antimicrobial resistance is tied to the use of antibiotics, and the main use of antibiotics is in the farming of animals.

“Up to 80 per cent of antibiotics that are used globally are used in livestock production, starting with pigs, and so that goes through the whole food chain,” Dr Bridges said.

The reason that pigs are given antibiotics is to fight diarrhoea — or what’s called “scour” in the farming industry — which can be, and often is, fatal.

“Up to 20 per cent of piglets that are born commercially die from diarrhoea or scour-related diseases,” Dr Bridges said.

This is the problem Anatara is trying to solve, and this is also where pineapple root comes into the picture.

Anatara’s Detach product — the one Zoetis is interested in — is a non-antibiotic treatment for scour based on something called bromelain. Bromelain is a protein extracted from pineapple root.

Bromelain has been around for some time, but Anatara — thanks in particular to its chief scientist Dr Tracey Mynott — believes it has found a particular formulation of the protein that can prevent bacterial gut infections.

“The way bacteria works is that it sticks to the gut wall of pigs, chickens, whatever, and they get diarrhoea or scour as a result,” Dr Bridges said.

“What the enzymes [in Detach] do is appear to block the receptor sites on the gut wall naturally, so that the bacteria don’t stick and pass through unchallenged.”

The end result is that piglets don’t need to be given antibiotics, and the world has just taken out a huge chunk of the process that creates superbugs.

That’s the plan, anyway.

The next step is to create a similar product for humans, and Anatara has already started work on that with a scientist at La Trobe University.

What an independent expert says

So far it all sounds a bit like a sci-fi film — piglets, pineapple root, superbugs and the end of the world.

So Stockhead decided to check in with an independent expert at the University of Melbourne to test the facts behind the story.

Professor Glenn Browning is a veterinary microbiologist who specialises in diarrhoea viruses in livestock as well as the treatment, prevention, diagnosis and control of bacterial diseases in animals.

“Scour diarrhoea is particularly an issue in pigs,” he told Stockhead.

“It’s an issue in all livestock, but the biggest area where it’s a problem is in pigs. I guess what they’re saying is that there is a significant amount of antibiotics used in pigs to try to combat disease, which is true. That is the case.

“So yes, there is a problem and yes, it’s related to antimicrobial resistance. It’s an international problem, especially in pigs.”

Prof Browning said the idea behind what Anatara was doing was fairly sound.

“These organisms — especially E. coli, which is the most common cause of diarrhoea in young pigs — do attach to the gut walls using receptors,” he said.

“So in theory if you can remove those receptors by digesting them away, then potentially you can reduce the capacity of those organism to cause diarrhoea. That part of it seems OK.”

Prof Browning said the concept had been explored before, with promising results, and he was surprised there hadn’t been more research into it.

“There’s a paper from 20 years ago by Dave Chandler who was based in Victoria, he worked for the Department of Agriculture in Victoria,” he said.

“It showed that bromelain could provide some protection against E. coli.”

The only thing Prof Browning questioned was whether Detach was able to protect against all the different kinds of bacteria that caused scour — or just some of them.

If the Zoetis deal goes ahead, we’ll find out soon enough.

Anatara’s shares have traded between 72c and $1.33 over the past 12 months.

The company spent $200,000 in the quarter to June, leaving it with $10.7 million in cash. It expects to spend $1.7 million in the current quarter.