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A herbal remedy to fight botulinum, the most poisonous bacterial toxin

Bringing a great relief to food lovers, particularly fans of processed foods, scientists from the USA and India have reported having found a herbal compound to fight botulinum, the most poisonous bacterial toxin that causes food poisoning. The study was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

The lethal botulinum toxins are produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. The bacterium grows in an oxygen-free environment and can form spores—a dormant form of the bacteria that are difficult to kill. Botulinum enters our body when we consume improperly processed food that contains the bacterium or its spores. Although mainly a foodborne infection, botulism or poisoning by botulinum, can also be caused by wound infections and by inhalation.

Once inside our body, the botulinum toxins work by blocking the nerve functions, leading to respiratory and muscular paralysis. A set of proteins, called SNARE proteins, play a significant role in regulating the release of the neurotransmitters—molecules used by our nerve cells to transmit messages.

“The botulinum toxins block neurotransmitter release by specifically cleaving one of the three SNARE proteins, thereby inducing flaccid paralysis”, explain the authors.

In the present study, the researchers have screened about 300 natural compounds extracted from Indian medicinal plants to find a herbal solution to fight this toxin.

“Developing countermeasures and therapeutics against botulinum toxins are high priority research areas for public health because of their extreme toxicity and potential as biowarfare agents,” say the researchers about the importance of their study.

Seven distinct forms of the botulinum toxin, types A–G are known to exist. Four of these toxins (types A, B, E, and F) cause botulism in humans. The other toxins (types C, D, and E) cause illness in other mammals, birds and fish. The researchers targeted the type A toxin in this study. They conducted different biochemical and cellular assays to test the activity of the herbal compounds.

The study found that a compound called nitrophenyl psoralen was capable of inhibiting the type A botulinum neurotoxin. The researchers remark that small molecules, like the one above, are relatively more stable and have better cell permeability, making them more competent to fight such toxins.

Although poisoning by botulinum is rare, the rate of mortality is very high, about 5-10%. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment is necessary to save those affected. The herbal compound identified in the current study could help save lives.