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Feb 21, 2012

Plant Medicines Effective Against Resistant Bacteria: More Evidence

Across the world, concerns over antibiotic-resistant infections continue to rise.  Antibiotic drugs have undoubtedly proven to be life-saving for many people with severe infections, but with years of continued overuse and misuse, these same antibiotics have been rapidly losing their ability to work.  Practitioners of traditional herbal medicine are familiar with the value of using whole plant medicines when appropriate not only to prevent development of antibiotic resistance, but also to successfully treat many types of infections without the need for antibiotics.

A Danish scientist by the name of Jes Gitz Holler, PhD, has recently found a Chilean rainforest plant to contain a natural compound effective in cases of resistant bacterial infections.  The substance apparently targets a resistance mechanism in the bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus.  The substance originates from the Chilean avocado plant, and shows benefit when used in combination with traditional antibiotic medications.  It works by blocking the bacteria’s defense, preventing the bacteria from pumping the antibiotics across their cell membranes, thus allowing the antibiotics to effectively target the bacteria.

The plant specimens that were gathered for the study came from Chile, in a region where the local people use the leaves from this plant for wound-healing.

By using this compound in conjunction with antibiotics, the concentration of antibiotics required to inhibit bacterial growth was found to be reduced at least eight-fold.  With results this impressive, researchers now find themselves on a quest to synthetically produce and “optimize chemistry” for this substance, ultimately hoping to develop a new drug that will help combat resistant forms of bacteria.

According to Jes Gitz Holler, "For all intents and purposes, the drug industry is not pursuing research into new antibiotics. It is simply too expensive relative to possible earnings, and there is more money in drugs to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes. Therefore, the bacteria are winning the race -- resistance increases and treatment options are scarce. Research will have to find new paths and natural substances are one of them.”

While it is incredibly exciting that yet another plant has been recognized for some of its impressive medicinal properties, it is concerning that the overriding tendency after a discovery like this is to immediately jump to isolate and chemically-manipulate certain constituents from the plant, for the purpose of developing a new profitable drug.  When substances are isolated from plants and then synthetically-altered using chemistry, many of the potential medicinal properties of that plant are left behind.  Traditional herbal medicine practitioners often celebrate plant wisdom, acknowledging the ability of a particular plant to provide important medicinal effects based on all constituents within the plant working together in a synergistic fashion.

Science is a spectacular tool that can help us to identify important components and constituents of our world, often breaking things down into smaller units that feed our understanding.  And although we should certainly pursue understanding the pieces that make up the whole, let’s not forget the big picture of things!

While it’s a fabulous discovery that the Chilean avocado plant appears to offer benefit in cases of antibiotic-resistance, keep in mind that there are undoubtedly many plants with health benefits probably growing in your own backyard or somewhere nearby!  Many of these plants are yet to be “discovered” but more importantly, many of them that would be growing in people’s backyards and gardens are all too frequently replaced by lawns or some combination of pretty hybrid flowers.  We just might have our own local version of the Chilean avocado plant growing right under our noses!

The study discussed above was published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. 

Dr. Shana McQueen