How to

28 November 2016

WWI Antiseptic Stamps Out the Common Cold and Superbugs

Img source: The Sydney Morning Herald
An antiseptic used throughout World War I and II to treat everything from gonorrhoea to bladder infections may hold the key to curing the common cold. Called acriflavine, the antiseptic is a brown or orange powder primarily made of coal tar. Historically, the powder was mixed with water to wash out wounds and treat abrasions during World War I and II. Not only that, it was an apply-to-all treatment used for several afflictions including killing the parasite causing sleeping sickness. Archaic as it may seem, the treatment does have applications in modern medicine, impossibly so.

How can a centuries-old antiseptic be proven to fight off modern viral infections? How can it successfully apply to so many different issues?

Molecular biologists Michael Gantier and Genevieve Pepin from Melbourne’s Hudson Institute of Medical Research have discovered the secret behind this cure-all treatment. The biologists have found that the antiseptic attaches to the DNA of the treated person, jump-starting the immune system. It also binds to bacterial DNA, inhibiting the spread of bacteria and allowing the jump-started immune system to get ahead. The study has been published in Nucleic Acids Research journal; in terms of its applications Gantier said, “While we have published on its impact on viruses, it is most likely that this is applicable to bacterial infections as well.”

Gantier and Pepin’s findings have shown that acriflavine can be applied to the common cold and influenza, commonly known as the flu.  However, even more interestingly, the antiseptic has the potential to contain viral outbreaks of debilitating viruses like SARS, Zika, and Ebola. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the antiseptic could be used to treat against antibiotic-resistant superbugs forecast to kill 10 million people by 2050.

Pepin leads us through the effect acriflavine has on colds: when cells were treated two days before exposure to the common cold, the virus was not able to replicate and the immune system responded quickly. According to Gantier, “In a patient, that would mean that if you were to encounter a virus, you wouldn’t feel as sick and you would clear the infection quicker.” This newfound function means that acriflavine can be used as a preventative measure for those most at risk, the young and elderly, or those exposed to viruses, healthcare workers.

Some poorer countries still use acriflavine because of its low cost and transportability. As it is a powder, temperature and humidity are not relevant factors. In the past 50 years, the antiseptic has largely been replaced by penicillin. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).