Even as progress continues to be made in medicine and pharmaceuticals, infectious diseases continue to be a rampant threat, especially in the developing world. Infectious diseases are ailments caused by pathogenic microorganisms and are one of the leading causes of death worldwide. The most common, accessible and inexpensive method of treatment for these diseases is antibiotics.

Antibiotics, as the name suggests, are chemical compounds that inhibit the growth of micro-organisms such as bacteria and fungi. The job of antibiotics is vital in curing many infectious bacterial and fungal diseases, as well as preventing these diseases as a consequence of viral infections.

Although there are hundreds of types of antibiotics today, their mode of action is along the same basic principle: the active ingredient in the antibiotic intercepts the metabolic machinery of the microorganism, thereby either killing it or preventing it from reproducing.

Unfortunately, antibiotics can be expensive, especially when needed for prolonged usage. The manufacturing of pharmaceutical antibiotics is at least semi-synthetic: that is, significant alterations are chemically induced in any naturally occurring raw materials. This method of production also makes it somewhat inaccessible in certain areas. In fact, a 2015 report has shown antibiotics to be 15 percent of the drug shortage in the past five years.

Another issue with modern antibiotic drugs is the notorious antibiotic resistance. The microorganisms have the capability to evolve quickly by inducing changes in their nucleic acids to resist antibiotics. So, if one antibiotic can interact with one gene or its complementary protein product, it will not do so in the event of any genetic mutation. This renders the antibiotics ineffective, as it is almost impossible to track every single point mutation that occurs in a specie, and manufacture a new drug quick enough to tackle that evolved resistance.

All of these issues have opened up interest into the development of a natural alternative to antibiotics. The potential advantage of these products is that they are natural, readily available and can work synergistically with existing antibiotic therapies. Many compounds have been indicated as possible alternatives, but none more so than polyphenols.

Polyphenols are a group of chemical compounds characterized by the presence of the same functional group. The presence of these compounds generally imparts very characteristic aspects to the plant it is found in. These compounds have been found to be not only effective in sync with synthetic antibiotics, but also quite effective in their own antimicrobial properties. Blueberry extract, for instance, can significantly retard the growth of the bacterium Campylobacter, which causes food poisoning.

An added significance of this approach is the sustainability of the polyphenolic antibiotics: researchers have successfully used berry pomace and pomegranate peel (fruit waste products) to extract the desired polyphenol antimicrobial agent. Polyphenols can also be extracted from various plants and can be tailored to the region the antibiotics are being manufactured for.

To date, the primary usage of polyphenolic compounds from natural sources has been limited to synergistic combination with traditional antibiotics. However, with new research being conducted on the development of a commercially feasible application of the natural polyphenolic extractions, this particular method of treatment is a big contender in the new era of antibiotics.

Atifah Safi

Sources: Science Direct 1, Science Direct 2, Nature, Oxford Journals
Photo: Flickr