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Superbugs stung by honey bees

1 May 08 06:40 GMT
By Martin Cassidy
BBC Northern Ireland Environment Correspondent

The ancient Egyptians understood that honey had healing properties, but now researchers in Belfast have discovered the secrets of its anti-microbial properties and its power to destroy a worrying new form of MRSA.

MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.

In Belfast's City Hospital Professor John Moore and his small team of scientists are in hot pursuit of superbugs.

In the hospital's laboratory, the professor and his researchers study what superbugs like, and the things which make life difficult for them.

No two bugs it seems are quite the same.

Professor Moore says even when Alexander Fleming was discovering the power of penicillin to kill bacteria, he noticed some of the bugs showed a measure of resistance.

Today antibiotic resistance is more widely understood.

But even the superbugs which can resist some of our strongest drugs may have weaknesses which scientists can exploit.

And so it is with a relatively new form of community MRSA which can affect not only vulnerable patients but healthy young people in the prime of life.

Community associated MRSA is typically found in wounds and boils. Like many superbugs it can be difficult to treat.

Professor Moore is a scientist who likes to draw on history to help solve the problems facing the modern hospital laboratory.

Surrounded by his team, he explains that in medieval times, some physicians used rose honey to treat wounds soldiers received in battle.

Those doctors understood that honey had healing and disinfecting properties and that set the City Hospital scientists thinking.

And far from being the only team looking at the medicinal properties of honey, they found a number of other researchers around the world who were also interested.

But what was the science underlying the healing powers of honey and could it be used to tackle superbugs like community MRSA?

Those were the questions which Professor Moore and Japanese assistant Maeda Yasunori set about answering.

As it happened another scientist at nearby Queen's University, Philip Earle, keeps bees as a hobby.

The scientists got talking.

Before long jars of sweet Comber honey were lined up in the laboratory ready for sterilisation.

The MRSA samples looked quite innocuous in the plastic petri-dishes.

But a battle was about to commence.

Observing from a safe distance, the scientists were suitably sceptical.

Could a smear of honey deliver a knock-out blow to the mighty MRSA bug?

The magnifying glass told all. And there across the battlefield of the plastic dish were wide swathes of dead super bugs.

Incredibly, the honey had prevailed.

But how?

The technical answer is fructose or in simple terms the sheer sweetness of the honey.

The superbugs could withstand some of the most powerful antibiotics known to man but when confronted with a wave of sugary sweetness, they lost their will to live.

But that was not all.

Honey also contains hydrogen peroxide which has antimicrobial properties.

Clinical trials will now follow with topical treatment of sores, boils and leg ulcers with a honey dressing.

The aim is eradicate some of these nasty infections.

Professor Moore says the credit must really go to early physicians who maybe did not know the ins and outs of microbiology but who understood that honey had something of value to help human health.

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