UCSC partners with local nonprofit to find plant-based solution to a deadly superbug
Many people think essential oils are simply New Age fodder, used for therapeutic and spiritual healing. There is that. But local clinical trials have found that these ancient remedies, which can interact with human physiology, are also proving effective in killing antibiotic-resistant bacteria—a phenomenon that Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control warned last summer could be “the next pandemic.”
And not just any bacteria—MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus). Resistant to antibiotics like methicillin, penicillin and amoxicillin, the bacteria plagues hospitals, prisons and nursing homes and is responsible for thousands of U.S. deaths a year.
The first time I visited the College of Botanical Healing Arts (COBHA) was about a year ago, when I was invited to become a board member. Walking up the herb and flower-lined pathway, I already had a feeling I wanted to be involved with the institution‚ which is located in a modest one-room classroom in Live Oak filled with botanical illustrations, charts, several dozen oil vials and an entire wall of neatly stocked bookshelves. Yes, I can do this, I thought. But only if these people embrace science.
Several minutes later—after leading us through a calm-down, be-here-now meditation— I surrendered all doubts as Elizabeth Jones, COBHA founder, director and instructor, calmly began hashing out the details of the clinical trials she wanted to conduct on essential oils’ effectiveness in killing MRSA.
“One of my student’s grandmother fell and broke her hip, and went to the hospital and immediately got MRSA,” says Jones.
Responsible for about 86 percent of all healthcare-associated infections, MRSA most commonly affects soft tissue and skin, leading to pus-filled boils. In more severe cases, MRSA can cause necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease, becoming deadly when it spreads to blood and vital organs.
According to the Public Health Foundation, 94,360 people are infected with MRSA in the U.S. annually, and 18,650 die from it. But, citing fragmented and severe underreporting, the MRSA Survivors Network believes it’s more like 90,000 annual U.S. deaths from MRSA—an estimation based on statistics gathered by the organization Map MRSA (mapmrsa.org).
Vancomycin, the drug most commonly used to treat severe infections of MRSA, began to encounter resistance in the 1990s, just 30 years after it was developed—and the next promising drug may take a couple of decades to develop.
“I think that the medical community was lured into a false sense of security with the success of the antibiotics that were developed in the mid- and late-20th century. We kind of got complacent, and in fact a lot of the drug companies stopped their antibiotic discovery programs, because it was really a solved problem,” says Scott Lokey, Ph.D, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC and director of the UCSC’s chemical screening center.
Take the synthetic compound triclosan, for instance, which industrial manufacturers have been adding to products—hand sanitizers, soaps, cleaning supplies, surgical instruments and even toys—for decades, something we’re only now starting to become aware might not be such a good idea.
“It turns out that it has a very specific mechanism of action that the bacteria can evolve resistance against,” says Lokey. “If triclosan is in every cleaning product everywhere, then now the hospitals don’t necessarily have an effective product, because everything is developing resistance to it.” He adds that “it hasn’t been tested adequately in humans and it’s not necessarily safe.”
It’s an arms race that we’re locked into—bacteria seem to have an intelligence of their own, says Lokey, who recently completed two rounds of testing bacteria against 18 essential oils provided by Jones’ company Elizabeth Van Buren.
“The more compounds that you have that are toxic to the bacteria in a given mixture, the harder it is for the bacteria to evolve resistance,” says Lokey. “That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means that we’re delaying the inevitable. We’re really just buying time.”
But Jones believes that, in addition to being safer for humans, essential oils’ chemical complexity may give them an edge on synthetically produced antibiotics, with bacteria less likely to develop resistance—especially in a blend that combines several powerful oils.
“Phenol oils like oregano are proving to work the best, because they are the hottest, most fiery of of them all,” Jones says last week over lunch. By “fiery” she means: “They have a benzine ring in them, which is like a six-sided figure with a circle in the middle, and it makes them very hot and fiery—and antiseptic. They are the big guns.”
The rounds of testing conducted by Lokey at UCSC helped Jones to rule out oils that weren’t effective against MRSA—like garlic oil and eucalyptus oil—and pinpoint those that were.
The phenol-containing oils tested were most effective against killing bacteria, especially MRSA, says Lokey. And impressively so: “So it turns out that thyme and oregano had the lowest MIC [minimum inhibitory concentration]. That means that they killed at the lowest dose—and it was really pretty low. It’s about at a level that you could put in some kind of ointment or liquid and apply it to a surface and it would kill it.”
While we know that the phenols are doing something to the bacteria that they don’t like, we don’t know exactly what it is. “But you know we don’t have to know the mechanism of action for these compounds to be useful,” says Lokey. “I think it was quite a long time before we learned how penicillin worked after it was discovered to be successful.”
And the how isn’t stopping Jones, either. Following the trial results, she developed a MRSA defense kit that includes a lotion, Castile soap, and a spray that blends seven different powerful oils ($28 on elizabethvanburen.com). Currently, she is working on perfecting the oil ratios of the lotion—especially because oregano oil can be a skin irritant if applied directly to skin; which is why she’s used it in lower concentrations for the lotion, and higher concentrations for the cleaning spray.
“I think everyone who goes into a hospital really should take something like this with them,” says Jones. “I think our health facilities are failing us. The fact is antibiotics just aren’t working, there’s so much resistant bacteria that what are hospitals going to do? Having essential oils that are effective is just vital, for hospitals all over the world.”
Dominican Hospital administrators would not comment for this story, but Jones has reached out to the hospital, has met with hospital personnel, and hopes to introduce oil-based hand sanitizers and sprays for nurses, patients and visitors to use at the hospital to help combat MRSA outbreaks.
“One thing I can say is that [Jones] is really genuinely committed in making a positive health impact. It’s not just about developing a product and making money for her,” says Lokey. “I can tell when I talk to her she’s genuinely concerned about what’s happenening with the MRSA outbreaks at Dominican, and this is something that she’s really passionate about. She sought this out and she set up the whole collaboration with us and has really been a big advocate.”
COBHA hopes to raise funds for further clinical testing, and Jones’ next project is to develop a hand sanitizer. A May Day Flower Festival on Sunday, May 3 will raise funds for COBHA, and includes a dinner catered by India Joze, speakers, and oil distillation demonstrations. For more information visit cobha.org.
PHOTO: The bacteria known as MRSA is resistant to many antibiotics, but Santa Cruz’s College of Botanical Healing Arts, in collaboration with UCSC chemists, have found that it’s no match for a few powerful essential oils.