Could Ancient Remedies Hold the Answer to the Looming Antibiotics Crisis?
One researcher thinks the drugs of the future might come from the past: botanical treatments long overlooked by Western medicine.
By FERRIS JABR
Sep 14 2016
On a warm, clear evening in March, with the sun still hanging above the horizon, Cassandra Quave climbed aboard a jalapeño-green 4-by-4 and started to drive across her father’s ranch in Arcadia, Fla. Surveying the landscape, most people would have seen a homogenous mat of pasture and weeds punctuated by the occasional tree. Quave saw something quite different: a vast botanical tapestry, rich as a Persian rug. On a wire fence, a Smilax vine dangled menacingly pointed leaves, like a necklace of shark’s teeth. Beneath it, tiny wild daisies and mint ornamented the grass with pink tassels and purple cornets. Up above, on the sloping branches of oak trees, whiskery bromeliads, Spanish moss and the gray fronds of resurrection fern tangled in a miniature jungle all their own.
Each of these species intrigued Quave enough to merit a pause, a verbal greeting, a photo. An ethnobotanist based at Emory University in Atlanta, Quave, 38, has an unabashed fondness for all citizens of the kingdom plantae. But on this evening, her attention lingered on certain species more than others: those with the power to heal, with the potential to help prevent a looming medical apocalypse.
Quave parked near the edge of a pond crowded with the overlapping parasols of water lilies. Here and there a green stem rose from the water, capped with a round yellow flower bud, like the antenna of some submerged mutant. Alligators had attacked dogs and ducks around here in the past. “But don’t worry,” Quave said, tracing the pond’s perimeter. “If we see one, I’m going to shoot it.” She wore lightweight cargo pants, a black tank top, a paisley bandanna wrapped around her head and a .357 Magnum revolver strapped to her hip.
After Quave gave the all-clear, her colleague Kate Nelson and I pulled on some tall rubber boots and proceeded cautiously into the water. I repeatedly plunged a shovel into the pond’s viscous floor of gray mud, just beneath the tenacious roots of a water lily — species name: Nuphar lutea — working it like a lever to loosen the plant as Nelson tugged on its stems. We seemed to be making good progress, until the roots suddenly snapped and Nelson fell backward with a splash. Thirty minutes later we emerged with boots full of water and several intact specimens. “Beautiful!” Quave said. “Hello, lovely.” The roots, which she had not seen properly until now, were large and pale like daikon, though much gnarlier and bristling with a mess of shaggy tendrils. Before this trip to Florida, while reading an old compendium on plants used by Native Americans, Quave had learned that a decoction of N. lutea’s roots could treat chills and fever, and that a poultice of its leaves could heal inflamed sores.
Ethnobotany is a historically small and obscure offshoot of the social sciences, focused on the myriad ways that indigenous peoples use plants for food, shelter, clothing, art and medicine. Within this already-tiny field, a few groups of researchers are now trying to use this knowledge to derive new medicines, and Quave has become a leader among them. Equally adept with a pipette and a trowel, she unites the collective insights of traditional plant-based healing with the rigor of modern laboratory experiments. Over the past five years, Quave has gathered hundreds of therapeutic shrubs, weeds and herbs and taken them back to Emory for a thorough chemical analysis.
By revealing the elemental secrets of these plants, Quave has discovered promising candidates for a new generation of drugs that might help resolve one of the greatest threats to public health today: the fact that an increasing number of disease-causing bacteria are rapidly evolving immunity to every existing antibiotic. Without effective antibiotics, common bacterial diseases that are curable today will become impossible to treat; childbirth, routine surgeries and even the occasional nick could turn lethal. The widespread emergence of resistant bacteria already claims 700,000 lives a year globally. Experts conservatively predict that by 2050, they will kill 10 million annually — one person every three seconds. “We’re standing on the precipice of a post-antibiotic era,” Quave says. “We just haven’t fallen off yet.”