Cancer doctors turn to the honey that can heal

By EMILY COOK, Daily Mail

Last updated at 21:00 07 July 2006

A cancer hospital is importing honey from New Zealand to test its healing power on patients.

Doctors have turned to manuka honey to see if it can help treat mouth and throat cancer patients after surgery.

They hope the honey will reduce the patients' chances of contracting the MRSA superbug and help lessen inflammation of the wounds.

The pioneering initiative is taking place at Christie Hospital in Manchester.

Although it is a fresh approach there, the healing properties of honey have been known for thousands of years.

It was revered by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as a powerful medicinal agent and used to help heal burns and sores.

In recent years, scientists have increasingly highlighted the powers of manuka honey, which is distinctively flavoured and darker than normal kinds.

Scientists believe its healing properties are due to the presence of the enzyme glucose oxidase, which produces hydrogen peroxide - an antiseptic - and its high sugar concentration, which inhibits bacterial growth.

A study in 2003 reported that manuka honey outperformed conventional antiseptics and antibiotics in the treatment of infected post-operative wounds after Caesarean sections and hysterectomies.

And for a number of years, scientists at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff have been researching its potential to fight hospital superbugs such as the deadly MRSA bacteria.

For the past two months, nurses at Manchester Royal Infirmary have been using special honey-coated dressings to treat patients.

Now 60 patients at Christie Hospital, an international leader in cancer research and development, are taking part in a study to see if the honey can prevent infections which can be resistant to antibiotics.

Concern over MRSA

Over the last 15 years, survival rates for throat and mouth cancer patients have improved because of the effective combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

But side-effects include a condition called mucositis, an inflammation and infection of the tissue which lines the mouth, throat and digestive system.

Concerns have also intensified in recent years over the spread of the MRSA superbug which has already become resistant to most common antibiotics.

Once it gets into the body, through wounds or tubes, it can cause an infection that can prove fatal to someone already weakened by illness.

In the UK, it is estimated that MRSA and other infections such as clostridium difficile kill up to 5,000 patients every year, despite a massive government drive to clean up hospitals.

Other estimates claim the real figure may be twice as high.

Christie Hospital has the fifth-lowest rate for MRSA infections in the country. The honey is being trialled on the mouth and throat cancer patients because they are one of the most susceptible groups to hospital-acquired infections after undergoing surgery and radiotherapy.

Dr Nick Slevin, the specialist leading the programme, said yesterday: "Manuka honey has special anti-inflammatory and anti-infection properties and is believed to reduce the likelihood of MRSA infection."

The honey is produced by bees which mainly feed on the manuka bush, native to New Zealand.

Small jars cost around £12 each in health food shops but Christie Hospital is buying in bulk - so far importing 400kg for the clinical trials. The hospital is relying on donations to fund the research.

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