World War I Antiseptic Could Be Revived To Treat Superbugs

The horrors of World War I would have been even worse for the wounded were it not for the antiseptic Acriflavine. There is hope this neglected chemical could make a comeback to treat modern diseases. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Acriflavine, an antiseptic in widespread use early last century, but abandoned with the discovery of Penicillin, could help tackle the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often known as superbugs. Even more remarkably, Acriflavine appears to boost the body's immune response to viruses, providing a defense against the common cold, and possibly more serious viral diseases.

The great German scientist Paul Ehrlich discovered in 1912 that Acriflavinium chloride, known as acriflavine, could treat certain diseases when applied to the skin. It was used to treat sleeping sickness in sub-Saharan Africa, to prevent wounds becoming infected during World War I and even intravenously against gonorrhea.

Dr Michael Gantier of Australia's Hudson Institute of Medical Research thinks there is life in the chemical yet, providing an alternative method for controlling bacteria that have developed resistance to widely used antibiotics. Gantier is senior author of a paper in Nucleic Acids Research presenting evidence that very small doses of Acriflavine produce an immune response in cultured cells, enhancing their capacity to fight off pathogens.

“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,” Gantier said in a statement

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