Fighting Drug Resistance with Alternative Therapies


The indiscriminate use of antibiotics has led to the speedy development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The ensuing threat to health is so grave that the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts a global health crisis and a return to a pre-antibiotic era when simple infections could prove fatal. By 2050, the WHO predicts the number of deaths due to previously curable infections will outstrip deaths from cancer. As concern grows, so does the need for new ways to combat infection which don’t rely on antibiotics.

Widespread antibiotic use has encouraged the most ubiquitous of bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, to mutate and become resistant in the form of methicillin resistant Staph aureus (MRSA). MRSA is of particular concern because it is prevalent in patients who are most vulnerable to infections, including those in nursing homes and hospital. Unfortunately, these people often have weak immune systems which makes them even more reliant on antibiotics.

Finding new ways to fight infection is a high priority in biotechnology research. Researchers have explored alternative treatments offered by ultra-modern bacteriophages, 1,000-year-old medicinal potions, and ancient clays. The results are surprising promising and may offer much-needed hope for the future.

Researchers at Flinders University, Adelaide, tested bacteriophage-based therapy targeting chronic sinusitis sufferers with MRSA infections. If successful, it has the potential to help around 2.6 million patients. Looking to the future, Flinders University researchers are also investigating using intravenous infusions of phages to provide potent protection against bacterial infections.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham were inspired by a love of microbiology, history, and a 1,000-year old medical manuscript to recreate an ancient potion they believed was an early cure to fight off infection. The recipe came from one of the oldest-known medical texts, Bald’s Leechbook, and is an infusion of leeks, garlic, and bovine bile mixed together in a brass vessel. In their subsequent tests of the concoction, it decimated MRSA.

What is interesting about this potion is that each ingredient is known to have some antibacterial properties. For example, plants from the garlic family produce chemicals that interfere with the bacterial ability to damage tissue, while bile salts and copper have the potential to kill bacteria. To the researchers’ surprise, their concoction killed 90% of an MRSA suspension in the lab setting. This is comparable to the percentage of MRSA killed by the current antibiotic of choice, vancomycin.

These findings also suggest that antibiotic resistance is not permanent. Researchers hope the antibiotics that are currently ineffective against MRSA may one become useful again later as MRSA continues to evolve.

In a similar vein, researchers from the University of British Columbia are looking at the anti-bacterial properties of clay. Work shows a suspension of clay deposit found on a bay belonging to the Heiltsuk First Nation on British Columbia’s Central Coast, kills 16 types of highly resistant bacteria from the ESKAPE pathogens—including MRSA.

The clay has been used to treat a variety of conditions including phlebitis, burns, ulcerative colitis, and arthritis, and looking forward the clay is to be subject to clinical trials and toxicity testing to unlock its full potential.

These examples of research remind us that history may be a valuable source of inspiration to combat modern-day medical difficulties. Texts like Bald’s Leechbook and ancient medical remedies, coupled with biotechnological solutions, may reveal solutions to the current and future problem of antibiotic resistance.

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