Could Ancient Remedies Hold the Answer to the Looming Antibiotics Crisis?
Researcher Cassandra Quave thinks the drugs of the future might come from the past: botanical treatments long overlooked by Western medicine. Dr. Quave is a faculty member in the MMG and MSP programs.
Ethnobotany is a historically small and obscure offshoot of the social sciences, focused on the myriad ways that indigenous peoples use plants for food, shelter, clothing, art and medicine. Within this already-tiny field, a few groups of researchers are now trying to use this knowledge to derive new medicines, and Quave has become a leader among them. Equally adept with a pipette and a trowel, she unites the collective insights of traditional plant-based healing with the rigor of modern laboratory experiments. Over the past five years, Quave has gathered hundreds of therapeutic shrubs, weeds and herbs and taken them back to Emory for a thorough chemical analysis.
By revealing the elemental secrets of these plants, Quave has discovered promising candidates for a new generation of drugs that might help resolve one of the greatest threats to public health today: the fact that an increasing number of disease-causing bacteria are rapidly evolving immunity to every existing antibiotic. Without effective antibiotics, common bacterial diseases that are curable today will become impossible to treat; childbirth, routine surgeries and even the occasional nick could turn lethal. The widespread emergence of resistant bacteria already claims 700,000 lives a year globally. Experts conservatively predict that by 2050, they will kill 10 million annually — one person every three seconds. “We’re standing on the precipice of a post-antibiotic era,” Quave says. “We just haven’t fallen off yet.”