In recent years, the ability of some bacteria to resist drug therapies has led to rising concern amongst scientists and healthcare professionals, with many blaming the overuse and overreliance on antibiotics – and, in part, the public’s obsession with receiving antibiotic treatment even in situations where it would be largely ineffective.

Consequently, scientists are eager to discover the healing properties of a variety of alternative treatments and research is unveiling some surprises in the natural world that often have been a central part of folk or alternative medicine for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. From liquorice treatments for tooth decay to herbal infusions to relieve sleep deprivation, scientific research is unveiling alternative therapies to tackle disorders and conditions for which conventional medicine is largely ineffective.

Now scientists are growing excited about the possibility of using sweet chestnut leaves to render the notorious MRSA superbug harmless.

What is MRSA?

MRSAMRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – has become a household name due to being the centre of endless news stories across the world as infection rates in hospitals have risen, causing alarm among health managers, patients’ groups and politicians. MRSA is resistant to many common antibiotics, making it difficult to treat effectively and helping to gain its reputation as a ‘superbug’.

Although commonly occurring in the nose and throat of healthy people, Staphylococcus aureus can also appear as mild infections in the skin such as impetigo but, with complications, can cause life-threatening illnesses including septicaemia and endocarditis. MRSA is more prevalent in hospitals for a number of reasons, such as the large number of patients in a confined area and the use of catheters or the existence of wounds that give the bacteria access to a patient’s inner tissue and bloodstream.

Action in recent years has focused on prevention rather than cure, with public health campaigns and improved hospital cleaning at the heart of the drive to cut MRSA infections rates. Although the number of infections has fallen steadily, MRSA continues to place financial and practical strains on the health service. MRSA remains a potent threat to patients staying in hospital, with the elderly and those who are immunocompromised in specific danger of developing serious illness in the event that they become infected with the bacteria.

Sweet chestnut leaves: a cure for MRSA?

Sweet ChestnutSweet chestnut leaves are already a popular treatment for skin infections for people living in rural regions of southern Italy and other countries in the Mediterranean, but scientists have now discovered that they contain chemicals that are able to stop Staphylococcus aureus bacteria from emitting dangerous toxins. Crucially, it appears that the MRSA superbug is unable to develop a resistance to these chemicals in the same way that it has adapted to resist the effects of antibiotic treatment.

The chemical compounds contained within sweet chestnut tree leaves do not kill Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, but simply render them unable to wreak havoc by producing deadly toxins, preventing tissue damage and the risk of a patient developing potentially fatal complications.

Dr Cassandra Quave, who led the research conducted by the team from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, explained, “We’ve identified a family of compounds from this plant that have an interesting medicinal mechanism. Rather than killing staph, this botanical extract works by taking away staph’s weapons, essentially shutting off the ability of the bacteria to create toxins that cause tissue damage. In other words, it takes the teeth out of the bacteria’s bite.”

The use of sweet chestnuts in traditional folk medicine

The traditional use of natural remedies by people living in the Mediterranean had been the focus for research for a number of years. Scientists had learned that the leaves of the sweet chestnut tree would be used to make a tea, which would be washed over the skin to treat inflammation and infection.

It’s not the first time that the hidden properties of the sweet chestnut tree have been celebrated. Some herbal experts also claim that the flowers of the tree, which is common in the UK and across Europe, can be used to create a tea that is effective in alleviating the symptoms of depression.

In laboratory tests, the team used solvents to extract over 90 different chemicals from chestnut leaves which included ursine and oleanene compounds, both of which boast anti-bacterial properties. Tests revealed that only one 50 microgram dose of the chemicals was required to completely clear up an MRSA skin infection, preventing further damage to tissue and red blood cells in the process. Further tests revealed that delicate skin cells were left unharmed despite the chemical treatment, and harmless bacteria that exist on the skin were also unaffected.

Harnessing the properties of sweet chestnut tree leaves

Sweet Chestnut ExtractEmory University is now seeking to patent the extract for commercial and medicinal use, including the treatment of MRSA in human patients, a spray to

protect athletic and sports equipment and a disinfectant coating for medical apparatus.

The researchers now plan to carry out further investigations to determine whether the chemical compounds present in the extract work effectively against MRSA in isolation or whether they need to co-exist in order to render Staphylococcus aureus bacteria harmless.

The success of the research to date is not only important in terms of offering a potential cure for MRSA, but also because it reinforces the importance of not dismissing traditional, unconventional treatments for a whole range of illnesses and health problems. It is a view shared by Dr Quave who said, “It’s easy to dismiss traditional remedies as old wives’ tales, just because they don’t attack and kill pathogens, but there are many more ways to help cure infections, and we need to focus on them in the era of drug-resistant bacteria.”

The research also poses the question as to how many other unorthodox treatments are available whose potential has not yet been recognized, despite having been practiced in local or cultural medicine for centuries. Whatever the answer to this question, any progress in treating and curing disease in the modern world is likely to be welcomed.