Popular onion variety could be our answer to fight antibiotic resistance

22 Jan 2018

Flower of the Persian shallot. Image: sasimoto/Shutterstock

As effective antibiotic options become harder and harder to come by, a variety of onion could prove to be an unlikely solution.

For the past few years, threats of an ‘antibiotic apocalypse’ have been prophesied whereby many common drugs used to fight off infection become useless due to the emergence of globally resistant pathogens.

To treat tuberculosis (TB), for example, a patient will likely be served a cocktail of four antibiotics, including Isoniazid and Rifampicin, which are increasingly proving ineffective.

This means new antibiotic candidates are needed, and fast. Earlier this month, we saw 15-year-old transition-year student Simon Meehan win the top prize at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition 2018 for researching the potential properties of blackberries as a potential bacteria-killer.

Now, a team of researchers believes it may have found the answer in a variety of onion called Allium stipitatum, otherwise known as Persian shallots.

The team’s research began by taking extracts of the onion’s bulb and then synthesising its chemical compounds, four of which were tested and showed a significant reduction in the presence of the bacteria in the multidrug-resistant TB.

In fact, the most promising candidate inhibited growth of the isolated TB cells by more than 99.9pc, and can now be used as a template of new drug treatments for the condition.

The power of nature

“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,” said Dr Sanjib Bhakta, leader of the research, which was published in Scientific Reports.

“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.”

Speaking of science’s search for new candidates in general, fellow researcher Prof Simon Gibbons said that nature offers us the greatest opportunity.

“Natural products from plants and microbes have enormous potential as a source of new antibiotics. Nature is an amazingly creative chemist and it is likely that plants such as the Persian shallot produce these chemicals as a defence against microbes in their environment,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic