Sticking it to MRSA

Local docs look at a sweet treatment for mean bacteria

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Sept. 12, 2013

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T wo local area physicians who also happen to be beekeepers have launched a scientific study of an age-old herbal remedy: honey.

Stephen Rankin and Joseph Pope of Piñon Family Practice in Farmington are recruiting volunteers who have wounds infected with the MRSA bacteria for a clinical study comparing the effectiveness of expensive antibiotics with that of plain old honey from their own hives.

Rankin, a pediatrician, and Pope, a family practice physician, have already conducted the study "in vitro," which means cultivating the bacteria in Petri dishes and surrounding it with both antibiotics and honey, and results have been encouraging, Pope said in a telephone interview on Aug. 31.

"In the laboratory," he said, "our honey showed much better effect than pricy antibiotics."

For a number of reasons, test results can differ in a living organism, Pope said, so the doctors now need to try out the honey "in vivo" - applying it to wounds on actual humans with the infection.

MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, is a dangerous, contagious, extremely drug-resistant bacterium that kills about 19,000 Americans each year and is difficult to control in hospitals and nursing homes.

If it can be controlled with an inexpensive, widely available substance like honey, "Wouldn't this be a great breakthrough?" asked Pope. "Not only would it be great news for the Third World, where they don't always have access to antibiotics, but for the First World, where we tend to overprescribe antibiotics."

In fact, Pope said, it's widely thought overusing antibiotics led to the evolution of MRSA from the original staphylococcus aureus.

"Staph has been with us since the beginning of time," he said, " but it's only in recent years it has become so difficult to treat."

Pope said Rankin, the lead researcher on the study, first approached him about it two years ago.

"He's had a long-held interest in honey and medicine," Pope explained.

It took two years for the physicians to formulate the study and get approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration for a clinical trial.

Using honey in wound care is "nothing new," Pope said. It's been used for millennia by "just about every culture," the doctor said, and manuka honey from New Zealand - which seems to obtain anti-bacterial properties from the manuka plant - has even been approved as a pharmaceutical.

"The unique thing about our study," he said, "is that we're using it against a bacteria that is resistant to most other antibiotics."

But the "coolest thing" about the study, according to Pope, is that "it's a real community collaboration."

Students from San Juan College's microbiology, health services, technology and math departments are assisting with the study, and both the college and San Juan Regional Medical Center have set up institutional review boards "to make sure we're doing everything correctly and ethically," Pope explained.

In addition to Pope and Rankin, the research committee includes San Juan College professors Mary Doshi and Don Hyder, SJC technology trainer Lynn Lane and Beth Philips, a research consultant at San Juan Regional Medical Center.

Philips said her main involvement has been to help set up the institutional review board - a requirement for FDA approval - and help the researchers jump through the other hoops required by the FDA. The hospital spread the word about the study, and the doctors there are aware of it in case they want to refer patients who present with MRSA and would like to volunteer.

Philips called the honey study "exciting."

"I'm always encouraging doctors to do research," she said. "Of course, that's my bias because my background is in research, but I think it benefits the doctors and, more importantly, the patients."

Pope said the researchers would like to include the Navajo Nation in the study, either by using Navajo volunteers or in a collaboration with Dine College or Navajo Technical University.

"We intend to approach the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock to see if they would like to refer some suspected MRSA patients to us," he said.

So far the researchers have four volunteers and they would like to recruit a total of 50.

If you are suffering from a skin infection and would like to be tested for MRSA to see if you qualify to be part of the study, call Pi–on Family Practice at 505-324-1000.

MRSA firsts manifests as red spot or boil that feels warm to the touch. "If you touch the skin, it will feel like touching a water balloon," Pope said.

Volunteers must be between the ages of 16 and 79, and willing to come to Pinon's Farmington office for seven consecutive days for treatment. The abscess must be no longer than six inches in length, and not on a sensitive body part such as the breast or the genitals. Volunteers may not be pregnant, diabetic, immune-compromised or have peripheral vascular disease. They may not be alcohol- or drug-dependent or allergic to either bee pollen or sulpha drugs.

Half the volunteers will be treated with the standard antibiotic regimen, and half with honey.

"The upside is, if you qualify you get free treatment and you get to make a contribution to science," Pope said. "The downside is, our treatment may not work."

Cindy Yurth can be reached at

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