Fish oil supplements may break down "superbugs" that have become resistant to antibiotics, research suggests.
The World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance "one of the biggest threats to human health". Infections that are currently considered to be almost harmless may one day be incurable, with once-effective drugs becoming useless.
Antibiotics become less effective the more they are used. Inappropriate prescriptions and patients failing to take the drugs properly mean many bacterial infections have evolved resistance, bypassing the medication that is trying to destroy them.
Scientists from Flinders University in Adelaide have now found taking fish oil fatty acids alongside antibiotics may help to ward off resistance.
Writing in the journal mBio, the team explains how fish oil supplements have antimicrobial properties, offering a safe and easily-accessible solution to drug resistance.
The research is in its infancy, with it being unclear how many supplements a person may have to take to help combat the problem.
"Our studies indicate a major antibiotic resistance mechanism in cells can be negatively impacted by the uptake of omega-3 dietary lipids," said study author Dr Bart Eijkelkamp.
"In the experiments, and complementary supercomputer modelling, we found these fatty acids in fish oil renders the bacteria more susceptible to various common antibiotics."
Read more: What is antibiotic resistance?
The scientists focused on the bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii. Often picked up in hospital, A. baumannii have developed "unprecedented levels of antibiotic resistance around the world".
"Our research showed fish oil fatty acids become part of the bacteria membrane, and thus make the invading bacteria membrane more permeable and susceptible to the antibiotics being used to attack it," said co-author Dr Felise Adams.
Some antibiotics target bacteria's cell walls, killing the pathogens. Others work to suppress the bacteria's division, giving a patient's immune system a better chance of fighting off the infection naturally.
Bacteria mutate rapidly, acquiring mutations almost constantly. Like "survival of the fittest", mutations that enable bacteria to outsmart the antibiotics then stick around.
These mutations are then passed between bacteria and down to future generations.
Speaking of the fish oil research, co-author Dr Megan O'Mara – from the Australian National University – said: "This chink in the armour of harmful bacteria is an important step forward in combatting the rise of superbugs that are developing multi-drug resistance to antibiotics."
Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, however, medics have mistakenly prescribed the drugs for viruses, like colds and flu. This gives bacteria a better shot of developing resistance.
Patients failing to take antibiotics as prescribed, for example coming off them too soon, also contributes to the problem.
In 2015, antibiotic use had increased by 6.5% over the past four years in England alone. In the US, at least 30% of the drugs prescribed are considered to be "unnecessary".
One of the most well-known examples is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
The bacteria S. aureus live harmlessly on the skin of around one in 30 people. If they enter the body, however, S. aureus can trigger dangerous infections.
Now resistant to the antibiotic methicillin, MRSA are said to kill more people in the US every year than acquired immune deficiency syndrome (Aids), Parkinson's disease, the lung condition emphysema and murder combined.
The sexually transmitted infection gonorrhoea, which around 44,000 people in the UK catch every year, has also evolved into a "superbug". Just one class of antibiotics, cephalosporins, is still effective.
While scientists work to solve the problem, the public can help combat antibiotic resistance by following prescriptions carefully, never sharing or skipping doses.
Good hand hygiene and staying up-to-date on vaccines can also help.
Watch: Antibiotic resistance may lead to more coronavirus deaths