Antibiotics are one of medicine’s greatest success stories having saved millions of lives across the world over the last 100 years, but now their usefulness is under threat.
Penicillin was the first true antibiotic and was discovered by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming in 1928. It quickly became known as the wonder drug because it was effective against previously incurable diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis and many others.
Now, however, penicillin and other antibiotics are becoming obsolete because they’ve been overused in many countries, enabling disease-causing bacteria to mutate and develop resistance to treatments that once wiped them out.
These superbugs, including MRSA, are resistant to antibiotics and could potentially kill up to 1.3 million people across Europe by 2050, according to recent research.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) say the problem is ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’.
It means the race is now on to develop new drugs but the challenge is huge and progress has so far been much slower than needed if we are to avoid being left defenceless against fast developing superbugs.
The search has led scientists to some surprising places, sometimes having tapped into local folklore to find promising leads. One exciting development involved scientists testing soil in a remote corner of Ireland.
A team of researchers from Swansea University Medical School analysed soil from the Boho Highlands in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. They found that it contains a strain of bacteria, which they named Streptomyces sp. myrophorea, which is effective against four of the top six superbugs.
The decision to investigate the soil at Boho Highlands was not taken randomly, nor was it because of any detailed research, it was down to hunch based on folklore…not a subject normally treated with great seriousness by scientists. It seems such scepticism may be changing.
Boho Highlands is an area of alkaline grassland where the soil is reputed among local people to have medicinal properties. Dr Gerry Quinn, who was part of the research team, used to live in the area and was aware of the reputation of the soil.
The area was occupied by Druids 1500 years ago, and Neolithic people 4000 years ago. To this day, people in the area have been known to wrap soil in a cotton cloth to treat or sooth ailments including toothache, throat and neck infections.
Professor Paul Dyson, of Swansea University Medical School, said: “This new strain of bacteria is effective against 4 of the top 6 pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics, including MRSA. Our discovery is an important step forward in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
“Our results show that folklore and traditional medicines are worth investigating in the search for new antibiotics. Scientists, historians and archaeologists can all have something to contribute to this task. It seems that part of the answer to this very modern problem might lie in the wisdom of the past.”
Dr Quinn said: “The discovery of antimicrobial substances from Streptomyces sp.myrophorea will help in our search for new drugs to treat multi-resistant bacteria, the cause of many dangerous and lethal infections.
“We will now concentrate on the purification and identification of these antibiotics. We have also discovered additional antibacterial organisms from the same soil cure which may cover a broader spectrum of multi-resistant pathogens.”
The team found that the Streptomyces from the Boho highlands inhibited the growth of four of the top six multi-resistant pathogens (Vancomycin resistant Enterococcus faecium (VRE), methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Klebsiella pneumonia, and Carbenepenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumanii).
The team are now investigating various components of the new strain to discover which prevents the growth of pathogens.
Meanwhile, the research has helped reinforce local people’s confidence that granny was right and the soil of Boho Highlands really does have healing powers.