Sweet Medicine? Preliminary Research Finds Maple Extract May Boost Antibiotics

May 7, 2015

You may be of the belief that a spoonful of maple syrup helps the medicine go down – and now preliminary research from McGill University suggests that maple syrup may also help the medicine do its job.

Led by professor Nathalie Tufenkji, researchers have discovered that maple syrup extract could enhance the effectiveness of antibiotics. Their preliminary results show that it could lower the amount of antibiotics needed to treat bacterial infections.

Tufenkji said that the research began with at trip to the store to buy maple syrup. “We brought it back to the laboratory and the first thing we did is we basically extracted a slice out of the maple syrup. So, we took out the water and the sugar and were really just looking at this slice, these specific compounds inside the maple syrup,” she explains.

The first set of experiments didn’t show any antimicrobial affects. The extract Tufenkji's team was using wasn’t killing the bacteria on its own. “So next, we said, let’s sets see what happens if we combine this maple syrup with the antibiotic Cipro, a general antibiotic that is commonly used for different kinds of bacterial infections, and that’s when we saw some really exciting results,” says Tufenkji.

The researchers saw that when they combined the antibiotic with the maple syrup extract, they needed much less of the antibiotic to kill off the bacteria. “It’s basically giving it a boost,” says Tufenkji.

"It's well known that maple syrup, and maple products such as bark, have been used by Native Americans for many years, many decades, in natural treatments and remedies. So we were curious to look at it from that angle, but a more science-based perspective." - Nathalie Tufenkji, professor at McGill University

But how? “Bacteria have this skin around them called a membrane,” Tufenkji explains. “The skin protects the bacteria and keeps what’s inside — like the DNA for example — inside, and keeps toxins and other things you don’t want inside the bacteria, outside. In order for an antibiotic to work, to do its magic, it needs to cross this skin, this membrane, and get inside the bacteria.” What the researchers found was that when they exposed these bacteria to the maple syrup extract, it actually made the bacteria membranes more permeable. “It made it easier for the antibiotic to get into the bacteria,” says Tufenkji.

The inspiration for the experiment came from a laboratory in Rhode Island, where other researchers had found that maple syrup has anticarcinogenic properties. “So that led us to think, well, perhaps maple syrup extracts might have antimicrobial properties,” Tufenkji explains. “It’s well known that maple syrup, and maple products such as bark, have been used by Native Americans for many years, many decades, in natural treatments and remedies. So we were curious to look at it from that angle, but a more science-based perspective.”

The study is in its preliminary stages, and clinical trials are still years away. “What we’re looking at is making sure that these extracts, because they are really concentrated extracts of certain molecules in the maple syrup … [what] we really want to make sure is that these extracts are safe to humans at the concentrations that we’re working at,” says Tufenkji. She explains that first her team will experiment using human cells that they’ve grown, and once they have safe, positive results from that, they will experiment on animals. Once that has been proven to work, they will move onto a clinical trial.

"The idea is that if we can demonstrate that this extract works in a clinical application, then you can see it potentially as a combination drug, added with antibiotics in an antibiotic type capsule, that would be effective."

But before you get excited and start chugging maple syrup, it’s important to note the amount of syrup needed to get the same kind of effects seen in the McGill lab. “I haven’t even done the calculation, because I think it would be just a ridiculous amount,” says Tufenkji. “The idea is that if we can demonstrate that this extract works in a clinical application, then you can see it potentially as a combination drug, added with antibiotics in an antibiotic-type capsule, that would be effective. You wouldn’t have to drink gallons of maple syrup to get the effect.”

"The spread of antimicrobial resistance globally is a major public health threat. And so there is definitely a major motivation for us to try to identify how we can improve the antibiotics that already exist."

So why are the results of this experiment so exciting? “The spread of antimicrobial resistance globally is a major public health threat,” Tufenkji says. “And so there is definitely a major motivation for us to try to identify how we can improve the antibiotics that already exist.”

Tufenkji says their lab has also done work with cranberry extracts and that they think they have identified one of the key mechanisms by which cranberry extracts could help prevent a urinary tract infection. “Bacteria have this little tail that allows them to swim around, and this is how they spread,” she says. “They use this tail to swim up the urinary tract, they also use the little tail … to attach inside the bladder, for example, or inside the urinary tract.”

This tail is very important to bacteria when they are infecting, especially in urinary tract infections. What Tufenkji found was that when bacteria was exposed to different cranberry extracts, they were actually unable to make this tail, or grew very short tails. This made the bacteria unable to swim around as efficiently and they couldn’t attach to the bladder as well. “We were really excited because we thought, ‘This might be the key mechanism or the answer to why cranberry juice has been linked to reduce urinary tract infections,” says Tufenkji.

Researchers at McGill University found cranberry extract helped keep bacteria tails, or flagellum, from growing, which help bacteria swim around and infect the body. They also found that high levels of maple extract helped to deteriorate the cell membrane of bacteria, making it easier for antibiotics to get through.
Credit blueringmedia / iStock

With both cranberry and maple extract, Tufenkji says it’s unclear how their lab results can be translated to real life. “But it’s still pretty exciting to see that it does have a pretty dramatic effect in the lab, so it's kind of logical at least to expect that it would have some effect in the human body,” she says, “Unless it gets completely eliminated, completely digested or completely changed from its original form.”

"I think we have to be careful about what we're saying. Everything we've done so far has been laboratory studies. I can't go out and say, 'Well, yes, this will definitely prevent or treat infections,' that's not what we're saying."

One thing is clear: Tufenkji doesn’t recommend people run out to the store and stock up on cranberry or maple extract. “I think we have to be careful about what we’re saying. Everything we’ve done so far has been laboratory studies,” she says. “I can’t go out and say, ‘Well, yes, this will definitely prevent or treat infections.’ That’s not what we’re saying … If we can better understand how it works, then we can better potentially in the future implement it in a clinical application."