Vitamin B3 may offer a new way to treat infections from potentially deadly staph bacteria such as MRSA, according to a new study.
Researchers treated mice and human blood cells in lab dishes with a hefty dose of vitamin B3 and found that the ability of immune system cells to fight a staph infection was increased a thousandfold. In particular, the vitamin helped treat staph infections that are resistant to antibiotics, they said.
"This could give us a new way to treat staph infections that can be deadly, and might be used in combination with current antibiotics," said study author Adrian Gombart, an associate professor of microbiology at Oregon State University. "It's a way to tap into the power of the innate immune system and stimulate it to provide a more powerful and natural immune response."
The difference between petri dishes treated vitamin B3, also called niacin, and untreated dishes "indicates that there's a dramatic inhibition" caused by the presence of the vitamin, Gombart said. When applied to human blood, vitamin B3 triggered an immune system attack on the bacteria in a matter of hours.
The dose of vitamin B3 used in the study could be given a person and not cause health problems, Gombart said.
While the dose would require a prescription and a doctor would have to administer it, the same level of vitamin B3 could be consumed through diet or over-the-counter supplements, Gombart said. However, consistently taking high doses could cause health problems, such as liver damage, or a high level of inflammation that could lead to a heart attack, he said.
"I wouldn’t encourage individuals to go out and load up on vitamin B3," Gombart said.
Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious disease specialist who was not involved in the study, noted that a high-dose vitamin B3 treatment would be used only when someone is infected with staph, rather than as a preventive measure.
Hirsch, from North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., said the research made use of "elegant biology" and an understanding the body's defenses.
"Antibiotics kill germs, and this treatment increases the body's way of responding to these germs," he said.
During the study, Gombart said, the high dose of vitamin B3 strengthened white blood cells called neutrophils, which can attack and engulf bacteria. The vitamin may "turn on" genes that are important for killing bacteria, he said.
Combining the vitamin with antibiotics may be a powerful means of treating staph infections, Gombart said.
A combination of antibiotics and vitamin B3 could reduce the bacteria's resistance to antibiotics, Gombart said. "When there are multiple points of attack, it's always harder to develop resistance," he said.
Staph infections are particularly dangerous for people living in crowded conditions, as well as for people in hospitals. One strand of staph bacteria, MRSA, kills 19,000 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study was published yesterday (Aug. 27) in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
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