The key to beating antibiotic-resistant bacteria could have been hiding in plain sight on our supermarket shelves.

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Three artificial sweeteners that are commonly used in diet drinks, yoghurts and desserts can dramatically halt the growth of multidrug-resistant bacteria, a study carried out at Brunel University, London has found.

The bacteria, acinetobacter baumannii and pseudomonas aeruginosa, cause pneumonia and sepsis. 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 those with compromised immune systems.

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

All three were also found to reduce the bacteria’s resistance to common antibiotics, meaning less are needed for effective treatment.

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

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

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

Antibiotic resistance arises thanks to bacteria’s ability to adapt in response to drugs. It occurs naturally but overprescribing drugs in humans and misuse in animals is accelerating the process. It is currently considered to be one of the biggest 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 Centre of Inflammation Research and Translational Medicine.

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

The team now plan to run further tests and are optimistic that all three sweeteners could potentially offer new treatments for multidrug-resistant infection.

Read more about the future of bacteria:

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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