Researchers at The University of Western Australia are investigating whether tea tree oil can prevent the development of potentially disastrous antibiotic resistance.
Principal researcher Dr Kate Hammer, from the School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences, has been examining the properties of the Australian essential oil for several years and her colleague, Winthrop Professor Thomas Riley, has been part of a group of scientists undertaking tea tree oil trials at the University since the early 1990s.
"Resistance to antibiotics, including antibacterial and antifungal agents, is an enormous problem in health-care," Dr Hammer said.
The discovery of antibiotics revolutionised medicine last century and she is hoping tea tree oil will slow their relatively recent decline in efficacy due to increasing resistance. Her study will test the hypothesis that low levels of tea tree oil can slow the rate at which microorganisms become resistant to antibiotics.
The group has already shown that tea tree oil is effective in combating common pathogens such as E. coli and golden staph bacteria, as well as yeasts, the fungi responsible for tinea, and anaerobic organisms - and Dr Hammer's work will go further by testing the efficacy of the oil in reducing resistance acquisition, expanding the usefulness of antibiotics. Dr Hammer said the oil destroyed bacteria and fungi by damaging their cell membranes beyond repair.
"The oil molecules are small enough to insert into the lipid bilayer of the cells. This disruption of the physical barrier between the cell and its external environment may result in greater quantities of antibiotic entering the cell, meaning faster cell death and less opportunity for resistance to arise," she said.
Her hope is that in the future some topically applied antibiotics will be administered as a combination therapy - a cream with a tea tree oil component. An example of a common combination therapy is the use of benzoyl peroxide combined with an antibiotic for the topical treatment of acne. The research project is funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).