A team of researchers have recently found that centuries-old herbal medicine, discovered by Chinese scientists to cure malaria, could also aid in tuberculosis treatment and even slow drug resistance.
Ancient Remedy Known as Artemisinin Could Be the Cure for Tuberculosis
It is estimated that in 2015, tuberculosis was responsible for nearly two million deaths. Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (the TB-causing bacteria) needs oxygen to “invade” the human body. The immune system starves this bacterium of oxygen to control the infection. The team, led by microbiologist Robert Abramovitch from Michigan State University, examined more than 500,000 different compounds during their study, and found that artemisinin stopped the ability of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis becoming dormant, a stage of the disease that often makes the use of antibiotics ineffective. Artemisinin is isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, a herb employed in Chinese traditional medicine.
Abramovitch stated to Michigan State University’s official website, “When TB bacteria are dormant, they become highly tolerant to antibiotics. Blocking dormancy makes the TB bacteria more sensitive to these drugs and could shorten treatment times.” And added, “If Mtb can’t sense low oxygen, then it can’t become dormant and will die.”
Abramovitch also suggests that dormant TB can survive and stay inactive for decades in the human body. However, if the immune system weakens at some point, it can wake back up and spread. Regardless if it wakes up or stays “asleep” though, scientists have noticed that TB usually takes up to six months to treat and this is one of the main reasons the disease is so hard to get under control. Abramovitch strongly believes that the study could be key to shortening the course of therapy because it can clear out the dormant, hard-to-kill bacteria. This could lead to improving patient outcomes and slowing the evolution of drug-resistant TB.
Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause TB. Credit: NIAID
This is Not the First Time an Ancient Treatment Has Proved Useful Today
Written nearly a thousand years ago, the Kitab al-tabikh, written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq, is the most comprehensive work of its kind. It includes more than 600 recipes for culinary and medicinal dishes, including a well-known ancient Middle Eastern hangover cure. This hangover cure, called ‘Kkishkiyya’, is a meat, chickpea, and vegetable stew with the addition of a special ingredient known as khask, a fermented yoghurt, milk, and whey product, which is thought to be the key to alleviating what Nasrallah describes as excess heat in the head and stomach. Kkishkiyya is still cooked in the same way today, mostly in northern Iraq and the Levant where people prefer it instead of any contemporary medicine for hangover.
The Kitab al-tabikh written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. Credit: The National Library of Finland
Further, a 2015 study conducted by the University of Nottingham, showed that a 9th century Anglo-Saxon treatment for eye infections has been used successfully to kill tenacious bacteria cultures. The ancient remedy consisting of onion, garlic, cow bile and wine was proved to be an effective weapon against modern antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as MRSA.
Another ancient Chinese herbal remedy has also proved useful in the modern day, this time in the treatment of chronic pain. The remedy comes from Corydalis yanhusuo, a flowering herbal plant that grows in Siberia, Northern China and Japan. The results showed the importance of turning to ancient knowledge for solutions rather than focusing on the creation of synthetic drugs.
More Research Needs to be Done Before Artemisinin Can be Used Safely for TB Treatments
Despite the promising evidence that Artemisinin could potentially cure TB, the scientists of the study suggest that there’s a lot more research to be done before we can use artemisinin in TB treatments. Abramovitch told to Léa Surugue at International Business Times that there’s a long road ahead, “We must note that tests in humans are a long way away… we would have to conduct more studies, including to assess the interactions of the compounds we have identified with TB drugs. If we used artemisinin, we would have to make sure that resistance to this medicine does not develop, as is the case today for some malaria patients.” However, Abramovitch remains very optimistic for the future and believes that this ancient Chinese remedy could save millions of people from the horrific pains of tuberculosis if it proves to work safely and effectively in subsequent trials, “Two billion people worldwide are infected with Mtb,” Abramovitch said in a press release and added, “This new method of targeting dormant bacteria is exciting because it shows us a new way to kill it.”