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Antibiotic Resistance: Onions to the Rescue

As a close relative to onions, shallots provide some of the same benefits, including anticancer, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Now, researchers have determined certain antibacterial molecules from the Persian shallot, a staple of Iranian cooking, have the potential to combat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB).

If you suffer from a bacterial infection, you will very likely be prescribed an antibiotic. In the case of TB, you will very likely be prescribed not one, but a cocktail of four antibiotics, including isoniazid and rifampicin. Due to numerous factors, including overuse and poor gut health, antibiotics are becoming less effective because bacterial pathogens continue to develop drug resistance.

Given the fact MDR-TB infected nearly half a million people in 2016, killing more than 78,000, drug-resistant TB is a significant concern. Using shallot extract to boost the effectiveness of existing TB-related antibiotic treatment has the potential to save many lives.

Shallots May Be Useful to Help Combat Antibiotic Resistance

While you may enjoy cooking with , which possess many of the same health benefits as , researchers at University College London and Birkbeck, University of London, are exploring their potential to fight forms of drug-resistant TB. It appears the antibacterial properties extracted from the Persian shallot may be useful to increase the effectiveness of existing antibiotic treatment. The particular shallot species in question is Allium stipitatum, which is native to central and southwestern Asia.

After synthesizing various compounds found in the Persian shallot to enhance its antibacterial properties, researchers tested the compounds on several types of drug-resistant bacteria. One of the types tested was Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterial species known to cause TB. The shallot compounds were found to have inhibitory effects against:,

• Escherichia coli (E. coli): Large, diverse group of bacteria found in the environment, food and intestines of animals and people; while most strains of E. coli are harmless, others can cause diarrhea, pneumonia, respiratory illness and urinary tract infections

• Klebsiella pneumoniae: Can cause health care-associated infections such as meningitis, pneumonia and surgical-site or wound infections

• MDR Staphylococcus aureus: Genetically different from other strains of Staphylococcus aureus and responsible for several difficult-to-treat conditions such as sepsis (blood poisoning) and skin infections

• Proteus mirabilis: A pathogen frequently found in the urinary tract, particularly in patients undergoing long-term catheterization

One molecule in particular, deemed to be the most promising, inhibited growth of isolated Mycobacterium tuberculosis cells by more than 99.9 percent. Although the research is ongoing and clinical trials would be needed to affirm the efficacy of these chemical compounds for medical treatment, the four shallot molecules tested to date significantly reduced bacteria in MDR-TB.

About the results, study author Sanjib Bhakta, Ph.D., head of Birkbeck, University of London's Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology Mycobacteria research lab, said:,

"Despite a concerted global effort to prevent the spread of tuberculosis, approximately 10 million new cases and 2 million deaths were reported in 2016. As many as 50 million people worldwide are currently infected with MDR-TB, which means it's vital to develop new antibacterials.

In searching for new antibacterials, we tend to focus on molecules that are potent enough to be developed commercially as new drug entities by themselves. However, in this study we show that by inhibiting the key intrinsic resistance properties of the TB, one could increase the effects of existing antibiotic treatment and reverse the tide of already existing drug resistance."

Should the shallot research continue to advance, scientists hope to one day pair these promising plant compounds with antibiotics already being used to combat strains of TB that have developed resistance to antibacterial drugs.

Professor Simon Gibbons, study author and head of University College London's department of pharmaceutical and biological chemistry, stated, "Natural products from plants and microbes have enormous potential as a source of new antibiotics. Nature is an amazingly creative chemist … We believe nature holds the key for new antibiotic chemotypes."

What Causes Antibiotic Resistance?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug resistance happens within the context of fighting germs. Some germs are drug resistant. Antibiotics kill not only the bad bacteria causing your illness, but also your good gut bacteria — the ones that help protect your body from infection.

With less good bacteria to fight back, the drug-resistant bacteria are able to grow and take over. Even worse, some of the bad bacteria pass along their drug-resistance abilities to other bacteria, exacerbating the problem.

This is, in part, why it is important to replenish your gut bacteria after completing a course of antibiotics. You need to rebalance your gut flora. Using even a single round of antibiotics, therefore, contributes to the development of drug resistance. For this reason, antibiotic drugs should only be used to treat bacterial infections — for example, pneumonia, strep throat and urinary tract infections.

It's important to note antibiotics have zero effect on viral infections, such as the common cold or flu. Your body recovers from viral infections only after the illness has run its course. Taking antibiotics for viral infections is unnecessary and dangerous since it contributes to the problem of drug resistance. About antibiotics, the CDC says:

"Antibiotics are among the most commonly prescribed drugs used in human medicine, and can be lifesaving drugs. However, up to 50 percent of the time, antibiotics are not optimally prescribed, often done so when not needed [and given with] incorrect dosing or duration."

As shown in the diagram below, other major factors in the growth of antibiotic-resistance is the spread of resistant strains of bacteria from person to person or from animals to people through the food supply.

Beyond the human misuse of antibiotics, the pervasive abuse of these drugs by the agriculture industry also plays a significant role, accounting for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), in particular, are hotbeds for breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria because CAFO animals are routinely fed continuous low doses of antibiotics, which enables pathogens to survive, adapt and eventually thrive.