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Seeds of Hope for Antibiotics Resistance: Plants

Posted on October 10th, 2016 by in Pharma R&D


The concern is not new. It was predictable, and scientists have been warning about it for some time. But there is no question that the worries about antibiotic resistance are mounting, as some two million people in the U.S. alone are now infected each year with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics – and 23,000 of them die as a result of those infections. Antibiotics, once a wonder drug, are losing their power.

Why Antibiotics Are Losing Strength – and What It Could Mean

The Centers for Disease Control explains the situation like this: “Since the 1940s, these drugs have greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. However, these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective.” The microorganisms that become resistant are often referred to as “superbugs.”

The World Health Organization charges that antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance is a “global public health threat,” noting that its consequences could include complications in the fight against HIV, malaria, and TB; compromised surgeries and cancer treatments; a rise in health care costs; and much more. And yet, despite these concerns, much of the public can’t clearly see the threat, or their role in it.

In the article When the Drugs Don’t Work, The Economist puts it this way: “The spread of resistance is an example of the tragedy of the commons; the costs of what is being lost are not seen by the people who are responsible. You keep cattle? Add antibiotics to their feed to enhance growth. The cost in terms of increased resistance is borne by society as a whole. You have a sore throat? Take antibiotics in case it is bacterial. If it is viral, and hence untreatable by drugs, no harm done—except to someone else who later catches a resistant infection.”

The World Responds

Fortunately, though, more governments are hearing the warnings of the scientific community and are starting to act. The United Nations general assembly just held a meeting specifically to discuss the threat of antibiotic resistance, and all 193 UN member states signed a declaration in which they agreed to fight what they described as nothing less than “the biggest threat to modern medicine.”

Reporting on the gathering, The Guardian wrote that the signatories “committed to encouraging innovation in antibiotic development, increasing public awareness of the threat and developing surveillance and regulatory systems on the use and sales of antimicrobial medicine for humans and animals.” The fact that this is only the fourth time ever that the general assembly has had such a high-level meeting on a health issue (the others were for HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and non-communicable diseases) speaks to how serious the issue of antibiotic resistance is.

What is Pharma Doing?

In the article Global antibiotics threat: What’s big pharma doing? Catherine Boyle of CNBC explains that few pharmaceutical companies are doing research into new antibiotics, because there are already so many treatments on the market and because it’s not a very valuable market anyway. “Antibiotics are usually only prescribed for a week or so, meaning that they are less lucrative than treatments for conditions – like high cholesterol – which have to be taken daily over a long period,” she adds.

But even if Big Pharma is reluctant to take charge on this impending crisis, members of the scientific community are working to find solutions. And, interestingly, many of them are looking to ancient answers for modern medicinal insights.

Everything Old is New Again

A recent New York Times story by Ferris Jabr story reveals that, with our existing antibiotic supply losing its usefulness, many researchers are digging into our abundant natural resources, examining soil bacteria, genetically engineering microbes, and scavenging ocean life and fungi. Some scientists are seeing a huge amount of promise in plants, in particular. Traditional medicine has of course used the healing power of plants for centuries, and modern medicine may have to rediscover that wisdom to deal with the problem of antibiotic resistance.

One scientist that the NYT spotlights, ethnobotantist Cassandra Quave, has found promise in an extract of Brazillian peppertree berries that has prevented MRSA from forming skin lesions in mice. “She believes these kinds of inhibitors are a major part of the solution to antibiotic resistance,” says Jabr. “She envisions using such drugs as prophylactics in surgeries with a high infection risk, or in combination with other antimicrobials if a serious infection is already established.”

Last year a feature in The Atlantic by Tori Rodriguez, proclaiming that Essential Oils Might be the New Antibiotics, cited a few studies that indicated some combinations of essential oils (which are basically plant extracts) have shown promise in replacing antibiotic treatments. But more compelling is the research that shows essential oils paired with antibiotics consistently and significantly lowers the amount of antibiotic needed to be effective. “Researchers believe that one mechanism by which the oils work is by weakening the cell wall of resistant bacteria, thereby damaging or killing the cells while also allowing the antibiotic in,” wrote Rodriguez.

Battling Onward

In the CNBC piece, Boyle considers that, in the war on antibiotic resistance, the future of research will probably rely heavily on public-private partnerships between governments and pharmaceutical companies, with countries providing the funds and pharma providing the scientific know-how. If those UN signatories are really serious about their commitment, this does seem the most likely path forward.

But no matter how the research is ultimately funded and carried out, it does seem that there is a good chance that plants and other natural resources will play an important role in the development of our future antibiotic treatments.

Explore research on antibiotic resistance, visit ScienceDirect or Scopus.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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