Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr.

‘Noxious weed’ may provide new way to fight superbugs

Photo courtesy of Forest & Kim Starr.

(NBC News, Maggie Fox) — A noxious weed that plagues homeowners across Florida may hold the secret to a new way to fight some antibiotic-resistant superbugs, researchers reported Friday.

A compound made by the red berries of the Brazilian peppertree disarms methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the team at Emory University reports.

What’s unusual is the berries don’t kill the bacteria, but simply stop them from doing harm, says Cassandra Quave, who studies ethnobotany and dermatology at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Traditional healers in the Amazon have used the Brazilian peppertree for hundreds of years to treat infections of the skin and soft tissues,” said Quave, who reported her team’s findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Her lab broke it down and tested it on bacteria, human skin cells and in animals.

It works it an unexpected way — as a so-called quorum quencher.

“It’s stopping communication among the bacteria,” Quave told NBC News.

“It kind of tricks them into believing they are alone. When they are alone, they behave differently than when they are in a group.”

MRSA bacteria can live harmlessly in the body, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 percent of all healthy people just carry it in or on their bodies. But when they cause an infection, they do all sorts of nasty things — releasing toxins, blasting open red blood cells and tearing apart skin cells.

“They are used by staph to better invade the host and disseminate in the host,” Quave said.

The little red berries of the Brazilian peppertree produces a group of compounds that stops this.

“This remedy, which been used for hundreds of years … works not by killing staph but by basically disarming it,” Quave said.

“This could potentially open up new doors in the way that we treat staph infections in the future.”

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