The World Health Organization recently released a report outlining the imminent threat of antimicrobial-resistant diseases. In the midst of such doom and gloom, could a solution be found in our own backyards? Scientists are turning their attention towards medicinal plants for future drug research and development.
Superbugs, failing antibiotics and deadly diseases: the internet is awash in terrifying terms, seemingly spelling out doom for the human race. What is the truth behind the headlines? How bad is the situation, really? Are we resigned to regressing into pre-penicillin days?
The rapid rise of AMR
To comprehend the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), it is important to understand how and why the problem has arisen. AMR refers to microbes (such as bacteria, viruses and fungi) developing a resistance to antimicrobial drugs (such as antibiotics or antivirals). The process involves a few cells of a pathogen surviving a drug and giving rise to a new drug-resistant strain of the same disease. In some cases, pathogens have become multi-drug resistant (MDR) or even totally drug resistant (TDR). These are often referred to as “superbugs” and are a serious global threat to human health and wellbeing.
The AMR issue arose because of irresponsible and excessive use of antimicrobials. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics to treat everything from a cough to the common cold (which is a virus) has led to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Poor patient use of antibiotics has also exacerbated the problem; premature discontinuation of a prescribed course of antibiotics often results in residual bacteria that develop AMR. Finally, the immoderate use of antibiotics in the agricultural and animal husbandry industries has led to the exorbitant rise of AMR. Antibiotics are used to promote rapid growth in cattle, pigs and poultry, and is often used as disease prevention in perfectly healthy animals. In the United States it is estimated that almost 80% of antibiotics aren’t used by people, but are instead fed to their food. Globally, over 130’000 tons of antibiotics are given to animals each year. This has led to the rise of numerous new strains of AMR diseases.
The WHO highlights the lack of new antimicrobials
To add the issue, research and development of new antimicrobial drugs is lagging woefully behind. A 2017 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the dangerous lack of new antimicrobials, and attempts to rank AMR diseases in order of priority. WHO found that the most urgent need was for drugs able to combat MDR tuberculosis and Gram-negative bacteria. Tuberculosis is an anthropogenic disease carried by about one in three people across the globe, and several strains of the disease have developed MDR and even TDR. Gram-negative bacteria is a group that encompasses most pathogenic bacteria affecting humans. Many common Gram-negative diseases are developing AMR, including salmonella, campylobacter and gonorrhea. However, no new gram-negative antibiotics have been discovered in the past five decades. As these diseases evolve stronger resistances, our pharmaceutical options lag further and further behind. We are rapidly losing this evolutionary arms race. Without a concerted global effort to develop new antibiotics, our current drugs will soon be as ineffective as sugar pills.
Will plants be our saviors?
Our options are however far from exhausted. Humans are innovative creatures, and we have always been good at finding clever ways to survive. The field of ethnomedicine studies this intelligence and intuition of our ancestors. Ethnomedicine is essentially the examination of traditional medicine practices of indigenous peoples and ethnic groups. As modern medicine keeps running into dead ends, the push to scientifically test these medical practices is increasing.
Recently there have been a lot of ethnomedical studies examining the properties of medicinal herbs and plants. A paper released just last year attempted to summarize these findings. In his review, Dr. Harish Chandra found that many common edible plants actually contain significant antimicrobial properties. Plants like garlic and onion, ginger and cloves, even common herbs like basil, mint and rosemary: all have antimicrobial compounds. These compounds were able to kill many MDR pathogens, including MDR Campylobacter, Staphylococcus and E. coli strains.
The WHO emphasizes the urgent need for research and development into new antimicrobial drugs. Their recent report states that pharmaceutical research and development has failed to meet the clinical need for new antibiotics. Our forebears developed a range of effective treatments against many common ailments. They came to this knowledge of what did and didn’t combat illness through extensive trial and error. We have essentially had several thousand years of experimentation predating modern medicine. In our time of need, we’d be fools to not look into this human database of knowledge.