An antiseptic used to treat wounds during World War I that has been out of use for more than 50 years could help fight superbugs and prevent future pandemics, Melbourne researchers have said.
The simple antiseptic, made from coal tar, was replaced by penicillin after the war, and fights both viral and bacterial infections in an entirely different way - one that could prevent pathogens from mutating to outsmart our medications.
Called Acriflavine, the antiseptic is derived from coal tar, and comes in the form of a reddish brown or orange powder.
The team from the Hudson Institute of Medical Research found that pre-treating people with Acriflavine protected cells against the common cold by triggering an anti-viral immune response.
"We have shown for the first time that Acriflavine binding to cellular DNA could activate the host immune system, unleashing a powerful immune response on a potentially broad range of bacteria,” said Michael Gantier of the Hudson Institute, co-author of the study published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.
Acriflavine was first identified as an antiseptic by German scientists in 1912 and was widely used as a topical antiseptic on wounds during the Great War. It was also used to treat everything from gonorrhoea to urinary infections before being supplanted by penicillin.
"Early scientific literature notes its antibacterial qualities in test tubes, but its very effective action on the skin has never been fully defined,” Gantier said.
"It's very cheap to make, it's not something you would make if you were a private company trying to make money on drugs."
"Our study indicates that acriflavine stimulates the host immune system, rather than simply killing bacteria, suggesting it wouldn’t be as likely to drive mutations in bacteria – showing a safeguard against resistance and a potential alternative to current antibacterial drugs."
Discoveries such as Acriflavine could help fight future pandemics, Gantier said.
"So we think that for patients who are at risk, we could potentially provide them with this drug in a form like a puffer — a bit like you use Ventolin," he said.
Gantier said those who were pre-treated with the antiseptic had an advantage over infections.
"So when they've got a head start for when the infection kicks in, they are better off because they've already been primed and they will be able to fight better," he said.
"We can apply that to people who are resistant to every treatment and that could still have some benefit for them.
The next step is to set up pre-clinical models to test how well acriflavine mobilises the immune system in more virulent strains of infection.
The findings, published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research, reveal the healing power of the antiseptic to be far greater than realised.
As well as fighting the common cold and influenza, it could be useful in containing the spread of viral outbreaks including SARS, Zika and Ebola.
And because the overlooked antiseptic works by supercharging the body's immune system, it could also prove a valuable treatment option for antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which have been forecast to kill 10 million people by 2050.