Drug-resistant superbugs have emerged as a major global health threat, killing thousands in the United States every year and prompting dire warnings from infectious disease experts that these new antibiotic-resistant pathogens could be as dangerous as Ebola or the Zika virus.
Now, a team of Canadian scientists may have discovered a novel method for dealing with the root of the problem — the overuse of antibiotics. Their breakthrough involves super-charging the effectiveness of antibacterial treatments using a simple, natural ingredient: maple syrup extract. This combination means dosages of medicine could be dramatically reduced.
Mixing antibiotics with maple syrup allowed researchers to cut the volume of antibiotics as much as 97 percent in some cases while achieving the same results, said the lead researcher in the study, Dr. Nathalie Tufenkji of McGill University, at a press conference Monday at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.
Tufenkji’s work showed that the syrup-antibiotic mixture extended the lives of fruit flies and moth larvae exposed to harmful bacteria significantly beyond those who were given only antibiotics.
“We found that these phenolic extracts from maple syrup actually synergize with antibiotics to protect these insects from infection,” she said.
“The insects actually lived significantly longer when they were given a dosage of a maple syrup extract in combination with their antibiotics,” Tufenkji said.
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Antibiotics like penicillin were hailed as wonder-drugs and transformed modern medicine in the 20th century, saving millions of lives and opening up new avenues of medical treatment like organ transplants by protecting against infection.
But overuse of those drugs has led some bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics. These so-called superbugs now pose a grave public health risk, terrifying epidemiologists because previously-effective techniques don't stop them.
According the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least two million people are infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics annually, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.
Infections can happen anywhere, and most occur in the general community. But most deaths caused by superbugs happen in healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.
Tufenkji had been studying the antimicrobial effects of cranberry extracts when she learned of the anti-cancer properties of a certain kind of maple syrup extract.
"That gave me the idea to check its antimicrobial activity," Tufenkji said. "So, I sent my postdoc to the store to buy some syrup.”
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Tufenkji and her team removed the sugar and water from the syrup to isolate phenolic compounds, a bouquet of chemicals that are also responsible for maple syrup’s rich golden-brown color.
Mixing the syrup extract with common antibiotics ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin, Tufenkji found the results were effective against a variety of bacterial strains, including E. coli, which can cause gastrointestinal problems; Proteus mirabilis, responsible for many urinary tract infections; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause infections acquired by patients in hospitals.
Next, Tufenkji tried out her theory on fruit flies and moth larvae.
She and her colleagues dosed fly food with pathogenic bacteria and antibiotics — but mixed in maple syrup extract to some insects’ meals.
Those who ate food doused in maple syrup extract lived days longer than those denied the syrupy topping.
Tufenkji’s research suggests syrup extract may work by increasing the permeability of bacterial cells, helping antibiotics gain access to the inner sanctum of the microbes. Another experiment she ran suggested the extract may work by a second mechanism as well, disabling the bacterial pump that normally removes antibiotics from bacterial cells.
The researchers are now testing the maple syrup extract in mice.
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