Antibiotics are becoming increasingly less effective, so what treatments can we look to when the drugs stop working? With help from plant extracts, award-winning company HerbScience is seeking to breathe new life into how we treat bacterial infections.
When Cynthia Hunefeld was just 10 years old, her father was hospitalised with a severe bacterial infection. Doctors tried antibiotics but they struggled to work fast enough, which subsequently caused serious damage to his brain and other organs. In just a short period of time, he went from being an athlete and a firefighter to becoming permanently disabled.
“That had a huge impact on me as a child and as a person,” recalls Hunefeld. “You pick up everything when you’re a little kid, and I remember hearing my mum talking with the doctors and hearing them say the antibiotics weren’t working.”
“Those things really stay with you. You grow up thinking doctors can fix everything [but they can’t].”
Several years later, her father would wind up in hospital again with another antibiotic-resistant infection. But this time, Hunefeld, who was in her first year studying ethnobotany (the study of the relationship between humans and plants), was ready to offer an alternative.
“Because he had antibiotic resistance in the past I knew there was a chance the antibiotics wouldn’t work if he got another infection. So I showed [the doctor] what I’d been reviewing about these plant extracts and what they could do [to kill the bacteria].
“His blood results showed his prognosis was poor, so the doctor said that if [my dad] was OK with it, then I could try [the plant extract]. I was lucky that I got a really nice doctor who was open to giving my idea a go.”
The result? Within a week he was out of hospital. “I remember [the doctor] shaking my hand and saying ‘I don’t know what you just did, but it worked. If you can figure out what the active constituent was and turn it into a medicine, then maybe we can help more people’.”
More than a decade on, that’s exactly what Hunefeld is on track to do. Born from her masters work in innovation and commercialisation at Victoria University of Wellington, HerbScience was set up as a business by Hunefeld to turn her discovery of an active constituent that could kill bacteria into a viable product.
Initially, the product – based off a “very similar plant extract” to the one she used to successfully treat her father’s infection – will be offered as a dietary supplement for E. coli-induced urinary tract infections (UTIs). As a dietary supplement, Hunefeld won’t be allowed to make any specific claims about her product, but in the long term, the plan is to complete clinical research and have it be recognised as a medical drug for when the antibiotics prove ineffective.
But the treatment of UTIs is just the first step for HerbScience. Hunefeld says there’s potential to treat a variety of infections in the future, which could have huge implications.
By 2050, antibiotic-resistant infections are predicted to kill an extra 10 million people a year worldwide – more than the number of people that currently die from cancer. Research suggests that chronic overuse and poor regulation of antibiotics has led to the sudden and exponential spread of drug resistance, thereby leading to a shift towards more therapeutic ventures.
“I’ve been working in this field for almost 20 years and there are so many products out there that it’s really difficult for the general public to figure out what works,” she says. “[With HerbScience], I really wanted to establish a company that used high-quality plant extracts and would provide therapeutic dosages.”
“From an evolutionary perspective, plants have evolved to defend themselves against, for instance, microbes in the soil. A plant uses the same methods as we currently use in the pharmaceutical model for antibiotic development – it wouldn’t survive for very long [if it didn’t]! It’s always intrigued me how plants have evolved to do a certain thing.”
Recently, HerbScience was recognised at the KiwiNet Awards – which celebrates transforming scientific discoveries into new businesses – for its “strong potential to be disruptive”. After all, UTIs are the most common bacterial infection worldwide, affecting over 150 million people each year with a market value of more than $4 billion. UTIs have also become particularly susceptible to antibiotic resistance, making the search for more efficient treatments increasingly critical.
With support from microbiologists such as Dr Scott Ferguson from the University of Otago, Hunefeld says that “rigorous lab testing” has proven the active ingredient to be “many times stronger” than cranberries – the only other plant-based product used to treat such infections. Dr Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor in microbiology from the University of Auckland, also worked with Hunefeld to look at the activity of one of her supplements.
“Most antibiotics in use today have their origins in natural products and extracts, so this is certainly an exciting avenue of research,” says Dr Wiles. “The issue comes when companies make claims they can’t back with any evidence other than anecdotal.”
“It’s great that Cynthia and HerbScience are keen to gather the evidence necessary to be able to make strong health claims, but the reality is that anyone can just say their supplement ‘supports’ the immune system, or ‘supports’ health and wellbeing, and they have something they can sell, even if it doesn’t do anything.”
Of course, HerbScience isn’t the only one working to back its natural products with clinical evidence. Honevo, for instance, developed by trained pharmacist Dr Shaun Holt, is a cold sore gel made from 90% kānuka honey. In a huge trial, Honevo proved it was just as effective as the market leader incumbent, and tasted a lot nicer too. Meanwhile, Dr Andrew Munkacsi, a senior lecturer in chemical genetics at Victoria University of Wellington, is currently working on using feijoa to develop a new antifungal. Like antibiotics and bacterial infections, antifungal drugs have become increasingly resistant to fungal infections, leading to Dr Munkacsi’s lab research into compounds in feijoa peels that inhibit the growth of Candida species.
“We’ve been [using plant medicine] for centuries. It’s part of our tradition, our human heritage, but it doesn’t seem to have been taken across to some of our medical models,” says Hunefeld, who points out that many common medicines we take today are actually derived from plant extracts, such as aspirin which dates back hundreds of years, and artemisinin which is used to treat malaria (its founder, who referred back to traditional Chinese medicine to discover the extract, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015).
“I’ve always had a curiosity for plants myself but it’s different for other people. There are a lot of products out there that don’t contain any therapeutic level of active ingredients, or they contain the wrong extract. It’s extremely common and it gives herbal medicine a really bad name when people put formulas out there without doing the proper research.”In New Zealand, practices like naturopathy remain unregulated which has led to some tragic consequences (two women died of cancer after trusting in a naturopath to cure them back in 2017). The country’s largest naturopath association has called for regulation, and Hunefeld – a former naturopath herself – agrees.
“I know herbalists that do a lot of research before they make their prescriptions. But because it’s not regulated you’re not required to catch up on the latest research and the latest science, and that’s where you start to get a lot of variety.
“It’s like everyone can call themselves a nutritionist or herbalist these days – some of these bloggers terrify me with their recommendations… There are quite a few things out there I wouldn’t recommend for myself.”
Currently, Hunefeld is working to establish collaborations with growers who work to fair trade and organic permaculture practices (ie: sustainability-focused farming). She’ll then use pre-seed funding from student-led investment group Momentum to collaborate with Callaghan Innovation and finalise how the product will be manufactured.
“I’ll work with Callaghan’s researchers to work on extraction methods and product formulation. Ideally, it’ll be a capsule, but if it turns out a different extraction method works better we’ll obviously go for that instead.”
And then? Investment, although HerbScience should have no problem on that front – Hunefeld says the company has already received plenty of attention from keen investors.
“I’ve definitely had a lot of interest which is super exciting. Even though I’d love to put my thesis aside and runoff already, I want to properly set up the business with a really strong foundation first. We’re [still in the process of] getting investment packages ready, but we’ve had so many positive comments from people really interested in getting the product on shelves.”
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