There’s a reason bacteria are one of most successful organisms on Earth - they are startlingly fast to adapt to their environment. So fast, in fact, that just five years after the mass production of penicillin, microbes were already appearing that could resist it. This, of course, presents drug designers with a huge problem. But now, researchers at the University of Queensland have found an unlikely ally in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria - cannabis.

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Early-stage research investigating topical uses of synthetic cannabidiol (CBD), the main non-psychoactive compound extracted from cannabis and hemp plants, for a range of skin conditions was ‘remarkably effective’ at killing a wide range of bacteria, including bacteria that have become resistant to other common antibiotics, and did not lose its effectiveness after extended treatment.

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The medical use of cannabidiol has gathered a lot of attention recently. The compound has already shown promise in treating epilepsy, anxiety, pain and inflammation, but this is the first study to show its promise as an antibiotic.

“Given cannabidiol's documented anti-inflammatory effects, existing safety data in humans, and potential for varied delivery routes, it is a promising new antibiotic worth further investigation,” said Dr Mark Blaskovich. “The combination of inherent antimicrobial activity and potential to reduce damage caused by the inflammatory response to infections is particularly attractive.”

In experiments in petri dishes, synthetic CBD was just as effective at killing strains of Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacteria as current prescription antibiotics. Crucially, it also proved effective against bacteria that had become resistant to commonly used antibiotics.

However, the results are still preliminary and do not mean that infections can be self-treated with CBD, the researchers say.

Next up the team plans to test the effectiveness of CBD in animal trails before eventually running a human clinical trial to test whether it can treat Staphylococcus aureus infections on skin.


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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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