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Fungal infections in humans may be treated with compounds from herbicides

Posted October 5, 2018

Herbicides are chemical compounds used to control unwanted plants. Usually these chemicals are called weedkillers, because they essentially kill weeds in farms. Herbicides are poisonous for plants but would you ever think they can be beneficial for humans? A team of scientists led by The University of Queensland found that a common compound from herbicides could be useful in fighting hospital-acquired human fungal pathogenic infections.

Herbicides as such are not good for humans, but some compounds could be useful even in medical applications. Image credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Wikimedia

Herbicides kill unwanted plants, controlling their population before planting vegetables or crops. They also kill fungus, which can damage roots of cultured plants. Scientists found that the chemical chlorimuron ethyl could also target a range of fungal infections that are potentially fatal to humans. Immune system typically deals with these infections rather well, but when it is weakened due to some disease or treatment, these infections can be fatal. Scientists were glad to make this discovery now when drug-resistant infections are on the rise.

Interestingly, scientists were specifically interested in herbicides when they set out to do this research. They wanted to see if these chemicals are able to stop these infections from growing. And scientists had a good reason to think that it would work, because plants and fungi have a similar enzyme that herbicides inhibit to kill them. And they were right – one of the five different compounds tested proved to be successful in treating fungal infections. Conducting various tests in a petri dish as well as with mice, scientists found that chlorimurion ethyl is highly effective at preventing proliferation of growth of fungal infections.

This chemical compound works by inhibiting an enzyme, which is important in metabolic processes of the fungi. This process makes three types of amino acids, which are needed for these infections to grow and proliferate. But one question is very important – are these herbicides dangerous for humans? Dr Luke Guddat, one of the authors of the study, said: “humans don’t have this enzyme –  we obtain these amino acids from our food – so there’s very little chance that these compounds will be toxic to humans, a factor which limits the use of many of the other currently prescribed antifungal drugs”.

On the other hand, this research is still in its early stages, so it is difficult to say where it is heading. However, hospital acquired fungal infections are very difficult to treat and can be deadly. Finding new ways to combat these dangerous conditions is important, even if the solution is discovered in commercial herbicides.


Source: University of Queensland

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