Natural Antimicrobial Agents
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What do pneumonia, ear infections and strep throat have in common? When they are caused by bacteria (instead of viruses) they are treated by antibiotics. That sounds simple enough, right? You have probably had antibiotics several times in your life. You go to the doctor because you feel lousy, if he or she determines you have a bacterial infection you get a prescription for antibiotics, and within the first day or so you often start feeling much better. Unfortunately, there is a large increase in drug resistant bacterial strains. These are bacteria that are resistant to being killed by the antibiotics that would normally kill that type of bacteria. If you have one of these bacterial strains the antibiotics will not help you feel better.
So what? You feel lousy for a while longer, then your body fights off the infection without the help of the antibiotics, right? Maybe — if you are lucky. Drug resistant bacteria are tough and can be hard to fend off, especially for people whose immune systems are not functioning optimally like babies, elderly, and people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. These immunocompromised people are also the most susceptible to sepsis. Sepsis is a combination of an infection (usually a bacterial or fungal infection) and the body going a bit haywire in responding to the infection. As explained in the video links in the Bibliography, sepsis is clinically defined as having an infection and other symptoms including abnormalities of body temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, or white blood cell count. If untreated, sepsis can severely damage organs and turn deadly. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of hospital cases of sepsis more than doubled from 326,000 in 2000 to 727,000 in 2008. Sepsis is difficult to treat making early intervention critical to boosting a patient’s chances of survival. This means starting both antibiotics to treat the infection and other measures, like intravenous fluids, to deal with the other symptoms, as soon as possible. But if the bacterial infection is resistant to the antibiotics, then the patient is in increased danger. So what can be done? Discovering novel, highly effective, antibiotics to combat the drug resistant strains is one key action point for scientists.
Researchers are searching for new sources of antimicrobial compounds. As discussed in the sources in the Bibliography, many plant products (like coffee, tea, herbs and spices) have been shown to contain compounds that act as antimicrobial agents. Based on your background research what are some possible natural sources of antimicrobial compounds? Try testing for antimicrobial action by culturing bacteria in the presence of extracts from sources you hypothesize have antimicrobial properties. What do your your data tell you? What sources would you recommend scientists mine for the next generation of life-saving antibiotics?
- Thermo Fisher Scientific. (n.d.) Expert Insights to Sepsis. Retrieved March 25, 2013.
- Hall, M.J., Williams, S.N., DeFrances, C.J., and Golosinskiy, A. (2011, June). Inpatient Care for Sepicemia or Sepsis: A Challenge for Patients and Hospitals. NCHS Data Brief, No. 62. Retrieved March 25, 2013.
- Cowan, M. M. (1999, October). Plant Products as Antimicrobial Agents. Clin Microbiol Rev. Vol 12, Issue 4, 564-582. Retrieved May 1, 2006.
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