Sugar has been found to be an effective and low-cost way to boost the effectiveness of antibiotics for chronic bacterial infections such as staph, strep, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections, researchers say.
James Collins, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, and his research team discovered that the simple compound sugar dramatically boosts the effectiveness of first-line antibiotics.
Chronic and recurring infections are often caused by bacterial “persisters” that manage to survive antibiotic treatment by shutting themselves down and metabolically going into hibernation.
Persister bacteria should not be confused with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, whose ability to withstand drug treatments is based on genetic mutations fostered by drug treatment.
Although persisters are genetically identical to other members of the bacterial community, they separate themselves by their ability to switch into a power-saving mode.
Initially, the patient seems to be fully recovered, only to have the bacteria return after several weeks or months, but this time possibly more aggressive than ever and the patient goes into a relapse.
Treatment of infectious diseases has been hindered by these persistent bacteria, allowing illnesses to stretch over several months, and can cause the infection to spread to other organs such as the kidneys, driving up medical costs.
Growing research in the area of bacterial persistence exists, yet no direct treatment for them has been discovered until Dr. Collins’ research team made their discovery.
Researchers tested Eschericia coli (E. coli) bacteria that causes common urinary tract infections and found that 99.9% of the persisters were eliminated within only two hours. The results were compared to no effect without sugar.
The researchers found that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine work.” Sugar is found to be an effective weapon to help stimulate the hibernating bacteria back into active status where they become vulnerable to the antibiotics.
The new approach adds sugar to the antibiotic, where the sugar acts as a stimulant to turn on the bacteria’s normal responses that can be killed by the antibiotic.
Professor Collins plans to further investigate the sugar additives effectiveness against tuberculosis, which kills about 4,700 people every day, according to the World Health Organization.
“Our goal was to improve the effectiveness of existing antibiotics, rather than invent new ones, which can be a long and costly process,” says first author on the study Kyle Allison of Boston University.
He adds that the findings have the potential to improve the lives of untold numbers of people who struggle with nagging infections, while also reducing healthcare costs substantially.
The findings can be found in the May 12 issue of Nature.
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