A potential health crisis is more likely as infectious diseases become increasingly immune to current antibiotic treatments, according to experts.

Researchers from Lethbridge College are collecting and testing more than a thousand species of plants that are native to Alberta to find out if they can be a part of the solution to addressing the looming antibiotics crisis.

“Everyone knows that plants have been used as a traditional medicine,” said Dr. Sophie Kernéis, a senior microbiology research scientist at Lethbridge College.

“Having drugs coming from plants is not something new but we don’t have any antibiotics on the market that come from a plant source, so we want to explore this avenue more.”

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Current antibiotics are mainly derived from fungi or bacteria. Although, searching landscapes for plants is no easy feat, the researchers are committed to putting in the long hours to potentially save lives.

Kernéis’ team has already collected 45 samples from 16 plant families, and they have identified two molecules with antibiotic properties.

“We believe these plants are very special,” Kernéis said, pointing out a variety of factors that make prairie plants ideal for this type of research.

“Because of the climate, the people, the animals eating them and infecting them, because of the soil, they have to really compete to stay alive from year to year.

“From our knowledge, nobody has studied these plants for their antibiotic properties, so we think we may have more chance to find unique molecules.”

The researchers said small labs play a key role in developing new antibiotics to help fight the threat of diseases that are immune to current treatments.

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Kernéis and her colleague at Lethbridge College, lab technician Leanne DuMontier, received a recent boost when their lab was federally certified to handle Level 2 pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that are known to cause disease. Previously, the lab was only permitted to work on non-pathogens.

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“The Level 2 certification is critical in order to be able to have access to some of these pathogens. Without that certification, we would be restricted to level ones,” DuMontier stated.

The new certification aids the work of the Antibiotic Alberta Plant Project, launched by Kernéis in 2016.

The pandemic has increased demand as antibiotics have been used on patients, the researchers said, creating a drain on the market at the same time that experts are trying to preserve existing antibiotic molecules.

With very few antibiotics being discovered in recent decades, experts say the diverse plant life in Alberta offers great potential for new findings.

“By using the coulee plants — we have such a wide variety… the concept of finding a molecule that has not been identified before is higher,” DuMontier said.

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According to the World Health Organization, by 2050, 10 million deaths could occur if new antibiotics aren’t developed to treat bacterial infections.

Infectious disease researcher Dr. Craig Jenne with the University of Calgary said that it’s imperative for new antibiotic treatments to be developed now to avoid future havoc in health-care systems across the globe.

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He said current antibiotics are becoming more limited in their ability to fight off even some small and common infections.

“It was identified 10 years ago, by the head of the public health agency in the U.K., as a greater threat to people than climate change and terrorism combined,” Jenne said.

He said an antibiotic crisis may also be arguably a bigger threat to lives than the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s something that requires us to actively work to not only slow and prevent new emergence but also come up with better solutions to deal with the bacteria that are currently resisting many of our drugs,” Jenne explained.

Click to play video 'Finding new ways to fight infection'

Finding new ways to fight infection

Finding new ways to fight infection – Nov 23, 2020

In addition to helping to cure and prevent infectious diseases, antibiotics are widely used in food production and cosmetics.

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Kernéis and DuMontier have trained 15 research students from Lethbridge College, the University of Lethbridge, the University of British Columbia and the University of Alberta.

The lab is collaborating with researchers from the University of Lethbridge and the University of British Columbia, and has received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the college’s Centre for Applied Research Internal Fund.

The researchers are hoping to pair up with industry partners and any landowners with specialized plants on their property to expand their work.

Those who are interested in working with the lab are encouraged to contact the Centre for Applied Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

With files from Global News’ Heather Yourex-West

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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