Study proves some honey more effective than antibiotics

18 June 2009

In the first study of its kind University of Sydney researchers have found proof that some honeys can be more effective than antibiotics in treating surface wounds and infections.

Unlike antibiotics, which only work on some bacteria, the honeys worked on all of the infectious bugs tested, including one that was resistant to 13 different antibiotics. Critically, the bacteria did not adapt and develop resistance to the honey as they do with antibiotics.

The honeys tested by the researchers were variations of Manuka honey and jelly bush honey, from NZ and Australia respectively, both of which are currently available in medicinal versions, but are not widely used in hospitals.

"Most bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one antibiotic, and there is an urgent need for new ways to treat and control surface infections," said Associate Professor Dee Carter, from the University of Sydney's School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences. "New antibiotics tend to have short shelf lives, as the bacteria they attack quickly become resistant. Many large pharmaceutical companies have abandoned antibiotic production because of the difficulty of recovering costs. Developing effective alternatives could therefore save many lives.

"Our research is the first to clearly show that these honey-based products could in many cases replace antibiotic creams on wounds and equipment such as catheters. Using honey as an intermediate treatment could also prolong the life of antibiotics."

The common denominator in the honeys tested is that are produced by bees which feed on Leptospermum plants, commonly known as tea trees, found in native Australian and New Zealand bushes.

The honeys worked on pathogens known to have a high level of acquired and/or intrinsic resistance, including superbugs such as flesh-eating bacteria, or MRSA, said A/Professor Carter.

"We don't quite know how these honeys prevent and kill infections, but a compound in them called methylglyoxal seems to interact with a number of other unknown compounds in honey to prevent infectious bacteria developing new strains that are resistant to it."

The research has just been published online in the European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, in a paper titled: The unusual antibacterial activity of medical-grade Leptospermum honey: antibacterial spectrum resistance and transcriptome analysis.

To interview Associate Professor Carter contact Kath Kenny, University of Sydney Media Office, on (02) 9351 2261 or 0434 606 100.