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A surprising breakfast staple might boost the effects of antibiotics

Tests found that syrup makes antibiotics more effective in fruit flies and larvae, with tests underway on mice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 3:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 3:32pm

An unusual supplement to antibiotics is showing promise as a way to make the medications more effective.

In research presented April 2 at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting, scientists found that when fruit flies infected with a strain of bacteria were given an extract of maple syrup along with antibiotics, the combination helped keep the bugs alive for days longer than flies that were only given antibiotics.

Nathalie Tufenkji, a chemical engineering professor at McGill University, is the lead researcher of the project. She said her work was inspired by native groups in Canada who have used maple syrup to fight infections. So, starting a few years ago, Tufenkji began to investigate whether there was any science to back up the practice.

Pure maple syrup (unlike most cheap breakfast syrups) comes from the sap of maple trees. When the sap is removed from the trees, it’s heated, which is where you get the syrup texture.

In the lab, Tufenkji and her team removed the sugar and water from the maple syrup so that all that was left was the phenolic compounds, the chemicals that give maple syrup its golden colour.

To see if these compounds affect how antibiotics work, Tufenkji has been testing the extract alongside carbenicillin and ciprofloxacin, two common antibiotics. So far, the researchers have observed that the extract enhances the effects of antibiotics in fruit flies and moth larvae. The next step is to try it with mice, an experiment the researchers are currently working on. It might still be years before we find out whether the same outcomes occur in humans.

Methods that boost the effectiveness of antibiotics work could be a big help in curbing antibiotic resistance, the phenomenon in which bacteria stop responding to certain antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant diseases are expected to kill 10 million people annually by 2050. And it hasn’t been easy to develop new drugs in order to stay ahead of the problem. Many major pharmaceutical companies have stopped developing new antibiotics, and the drugs that are still in development have faced numerous stumbling blocks toward approval.

When studying how well the maple syrup extract and antibiotics work together to tackle certain bacteria, the researchers found that they could use roughly 90 per cent less antibiotic than they would typically use to get the same bacteria-fighting effect.

“There are other products out there that boost antibiotic strength, but this may be the only one that comes from nature,” Tufenkji said.

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