Artificial sweeteners found in sugar-free foods can kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria

The key to fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be hiding in plain sight on our supermarket shelves.

Three artificial sweeteners commonly used in diet drinks, yoghurts and desserts can dramatically stop the growth of multi-resistant bacteria, according to a study carried out at Brunel University London.

The bacteria, acinetobacter baumannii and aeruginosa, cause pneumonia and rot. They are on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of “priority pathogens” that urgently need new antibiotic treatments thanks to the deadly threat they pose to people with compromised immune systems.

The sweeteners saccharin, cyclamate and acesulfame-K tested by the team were found to inhibit bacterial growth, with acesulfame-K being particularly effective at preventing the bacteria from developing biofilms that protect them from antibiotics.

All three were also found to reduce bacterial resistance to common antibiotics, meaning fewer are needed for effective treatment.

“Artificial sweeteners are in all diet and sugar-free foods,” said Brunel University London bioscientist Dr Ronan McCarthy.

“We discovered that these same sweeteners you have in your coffee or in your ‘sugar-free’ soda could kill very dangerous bacteria and make them easier to treat.

“This is very exciting because it usually takes billions of dollars and decades to develop a new antibiotic, and we found a compound that can not only fight pathogenic bacteria but also reverse its resistance to existing antibiotics.”

Antibiotic resistance arises due to the ability of bacteria to adapt in response to drugs. It occurs naturally, but over-prescription of drugs in humans and misuse in animals accelerates the process. It is currently considered one of the greatest threats to global health and food security by the WHO.

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“It has created a dangerous situation where a ‘post-antibiotic era’ is becoming a reality,” said study leader Dr McCarthy at Brunel’s Center for Inflammation Research and Translational Medicine.

“It threatens all aspects of health care, from cancer treatment to dental work.”

The team now plans to conduct further trials and is optimistic that all three sweeteners could potentially provide new treatments for multidrug-resistant infection.

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