Rainforest Plant Could Help in Fight Against Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

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By Amir Khan | February 21, 2012 4:25 AM EST

A plant found in Chilean rainforests could help in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a new study found.

Persea lingue, a plant closely related to the avocado, improved the effectiveness of antibiotics against Staphylococcus aureus, the bacteria responsible for everything from food poisoning and pneumonia to more life-threatening infections such as sepsis.

Antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria pump the drug out of themselves as soon as it penetrates their membrane. The plant acts as a "pump inhibitor," stopping this process.

"The [plant] inhibits the pumping action, so that the bacteria's defense mechanisms are broken down and the antibiotic treatment is allowed to work," Jes Gitz Holler, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark said in a university press release. "At this time there are no products on the market that target this mechanism."

In the future, the plant could act as an adjunct to current medications and open more treatment combinations to help combat the antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

"The golden idea is that a pump inhibitor can be combined with any drug that is prone to being [pumped out]," Holler said in an email. "Thereby, you can make several drug-combinations and expand the [therapeutic] options."

Drug companies are not conducting research into methods to overcome antibiotic resistance, opting instead to pursue treatment for chronic diseases such as diabetes, which can be more lucrative, according to Holler.

"The bacteria are winning the race; resistance increases and treatment options are scarce," he said in the press release. "Research will have to find new paths and natural substances are one of them."

The study was published online in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy on Feb. 6 and will be in the March edition of the journal as well.

Staphylococcus infections have been an issue since the 1940s. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an extremely hard to treat form of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, has been widespread in hospitals. The infection poses significant risk to those with weakened immune systems, children and the elderly, and is now spreading, according to Holler.

"Previously associated with hospitals, the infections seem to spread within the community, as increasingly more [samples of MRSA] are isolated from otherwise healthy individuals without direct contact with the hospitals," he said.

Chilean natives have long used Persea lingue to treat infections, most commonly skin conditions, which is what prompted Holler to investigate its uses. "The fact that they [use it] for the skin is interesting, as Stapylococcus aureus is THE major skin pathogen," he said. "The traditional use prompted me to investigate anti-staphylococcal activity."

Holler warned that the study is in its infancy, and said it is posible that the positive effects of the plant could be neutralized by certain processes in the human body, which has to be tested. However, he said that if it does prove to work, it could have long-lasting effects on the treatment of this common bacteria.

"If the product/idea can be put into a pill someday it could become a significant contribution to the ever-evolving battle against the pathogens," he said. "Thousands could benefit from this every day."

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