University of New Haven professor studying whether stevia can kill Lyme disease bacteria
Could a common sweetener that’s already in the kitchen cupboards in many American homes — stevia — prove to be an effective treatment for a disease as nasty and persistent as Lyme disease?
Maybe even as good as or better than antibiotics?
It’s too early to say that for sure.
But research by a University of New Haven biology professor and her students in the university’s Lyme Disease Research Group, which still must be borne out by clinical trials, looks promising.
In a research paper published in the European Journal of Microbiology & Immunology and archived on the National Institutes of Health website, Professor Eva Sapi, chairwoman of the university’s Department of Biology and Environmental Science, and her students found that the most antibiotic resistant form of Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme disease — called biofilm — actually increased in mass with individual antibiotics.
But liquid, whole-leaf stevia extract — not the powdered varieties that people most commonly use — reduced the biofilm mass by about 40 percent, they found.
Sapi and her students compared liquid stevia extract to antibiotics doxycycline, cefoperazone, daptomycin and various combinations of them.
“Our results demonstrated that Stevia had significant effect in eliminating B. burgdorferi spirochetes and persisters...” they wrote. “When Stevia and the three antibiotics were tested against attached biofilms, Stevia significantly reduced B. burgdorferi forms. Results from this study suggest that a natural product such as Stevia leaf extract could be considered as an effective agent against B. burgdorferi.”
Since the results were first published in late 2015, “We did a lot of confirmation studies, using stevia as a control in every testing,” Sapi said recently in her office just off Campbell Avenue. “So far, we haven’t seen anything better,” including all the antibiotics most commonly used, she said.
“Is it the one?” Sapi asked. “I don’t know.” But in confirmation test after confirmation test, “that is the one that jumped out.”
Sapi and her researchers also have gotten good results from bee venom, of all things, “but it’s bee venom” and some people are allergic to it, she said.
But stevia, essentially a plant extract, is safe, she said.
She emphasized that the results have not been proven yet and her team is awaiting the results of a trial being conducted by Dr. Richard Horowitz of Hyde Park, N.Y., author of “Solving the Mystery of Lyme & Chronic Disease.”
Horowitz did not immediately return a call for comment.
Sapi said Horowitz’s trial involves combining stevia with antibiotics.
“A lot of different labs are trying to find the ‘magic,’ the ‘magic antibiotics,’” to combat Lyme disease “and it looks like it might be some combination of antibiotics” and naturally-derived treatments such as stevia, she said.
“We might have to look to nature,” Sapi said.
The research that includes stevia started when Sapi — a former Yale ovarian cancer researcher who has worked for years to find a better treatment for Lyme disease since she had a bout with it, herself — came across research “that if you that if you add sugar to various antibiotics, it could help.
“So we went to Shop Rite and bought sugar,” including “all the fake sugars,” Sapi said.
In fact, they bought “every kind of sugar that you can think of.”
Stevia was one of them.
They tested both liquid and powders.
And “the very, very first time” they tested it, “the stevia jumped out,” she said.
Her team’s hypothesis, still to be proven, is that stevia “somehow tricks Borrelia,” sort of like a Trojan horse.
They believe that stevia “comes in as a food, but works as an antibiotic agent.”
AIMING TO SAVE LIVES
The work is important, Sapi said, because “people are dying from Lyme Disease ...
For years, Sapi was an ovarian cancer researcher, first as a post-doctoral researcher at the Yale School of Medicine and then at University of New Haven.
Then she had her own battle with Lyme disease, a “horrible disease” that, as she put it, “made me realize that other diseases could be as important as ovarian cancer.”
Her own experience with the often-misunderstood disease — which in her case, initially was misdiagnosed — changed the course of her professional life.
With more than 10 student researchers at a time in the Lyme Disease Research Group, they do groundbreaking research into the way Borrelia burgdorferi can rearrange its structure, including by forming a slime-like “biofilm” that she believes enables the disease to “hide” during efforts to treat it with antibiotics.
Two of Sapi’s students, Hebo Ismail, 24, of New Britain, and Rumanah Kasliwala, 23, of East Hartford, recently defended the masters theses, she said.
Among other things, the group’s research investigates ways in which biofilm might allow Borrelia to resist harsh environmental conditions such as antibiotic treatments.
Sapi’s work previously has included clinical trials with Curza, a Provo, Utah, pharmaceutical research company developing a drug that aims to penetrate the biofilm to more effectively treat the disease.
Over the course of all that research over a number of years, they looked at more than 100 different agents. The agent in Curza was one of them, Sapi said.
But “we found several agents which worked as well.”
Stevia was one of them, she said.
Lyme disease is a tick-borne, hard-to-diagnose illness named for the town of Lyme, where it was first identified in 1975. Early symptoms include an expanding red ring or rash that can appear around the tick bite, as well as flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue and muscle aches. Subsequent symptoms that can develop if the disease is not promptly treated can include heart problems, arthritis and neurologic problems.
On average since 1998, the state Department of Public Health has reported about 3,000 cases annually to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the CDC estimates that there are approximately 10 times more people diagnosed with Lyme disease than the yearly reported number.
That means, using the CDC estimate, that about 30,000 people in Connecticut are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year.
Sapi, a native of Hungary, earned her doctorate in genetics at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest before coming to the U.S. for postdoctoral training in molecular biology at the Yale School of Medicine. She has said she also was urged to take on Lyme disease by her UNH dean at the time, who suggested that working at a smaller research institution, it might make sense for her to do research on something “state-related.”