Honey, we could have a new weapon in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria

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A unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomach of bees shows promise as an alternative to antibiotics (Photo: Noel McKeegan/Gizmag.com)

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We've seen several promising developments arise in recent years in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or so-called "superbugs", from antibiotic "smart bombs" and hydrogels to "ninja polymers" and natural proteins. The latest potential weapon to join the armory comes from a substance used for thousands of years to fight infections – raw honey.

Researchers at Sweden's Lund University have identified a unique group of 13 lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomach of bees and passed onto fresh honey. When the bacteria, which produces a range of active microbial compounds, was applied to various severe would pathogens, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE), it was able to counteract them all.

Although the testing on human bacteria has so far been restricted to the lab, the researchers have mixed the lactic acid bacteria with fresh honey and applied it directly to 10 horses. These horses had persistent wounds and their owners had tried several other treatments with no luck, but the lactic acid bacteria mixture healed them all.

The researchers suspect it is the broad spectrum of active substances involved in the group of lactic acid bacteria that are responsible for its encouraging results.

"Antibiotics are mostly one active substance, effective against only a narrow spectrum of bacteria," says Dr Tobias Olofsson. "When used alive, these 13 lactic acid bacteria produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat. It seems to have worked well for millions of years of protecting bees' health and honey against other harmful microorganisms. However, since store-bought honey doesn't contain the living lactic acid bacteria, many of its unique properties have been lost in recent times."

As well as showing promise for use in Western countries where the threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria is growing, the team says the findings could also have implications for those in developing countries where fresh honey is more readily accessible than antibiotics.

The team now plans to conduct further studies to investigate the potential for wider clinical use of the lactic acid bacteria to fight topical human infections as well as on animals.

The team's study appears in International Wound Journal.

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