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As a child growing up in poverty in the rural Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, Moses Murandu was used to having salt literally rubbed in his wounds when he fell and cut himself. On lucky days, though, his father had enough money to buy something which stung the boy much less than salt: sugar.

Murandu always noticed that sugar seemed to help heal wounds more quickly than no treatment at all. So he was surprised when, having been recruited to come to work as a nurse for the UK’s National Health System (NHS) in 1997, he found that sugar wasn’t being used in any official capacity. He decided to try to change that.

Now, Murandu’s idea finally is being taken seriously. A senior lecturer in adult nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, Murandu completed an initial pilot study focussed on sugar’s applications in wound healing and won an award from the Journal of Wound Care in March 2018 for his work.

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In some parts of the world, this procedure could be key because people cannot afford antibiotics. But there is interest in the UK, too, since once a wound is infected, it sometimes won’t respond to antibiotics.

To treat a wound with sugar, all you do, Murandu says, is pour the sugar on the wound and apply a bandage on top. The granules soak up any moisture that allows bacteria to thrive. Without the bacteria, the wound heals more quickly.

Concern over antibiotic resistance has increased interest in other potential treatments, like sugar (Credit: Getty Images)

Evidence for all of this was found in Murandu’s trials in the lab. And a growing collection of case studies from around the world has supported Murandu’s findings, including examples of successful sugar treatments on wounds containing bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Even so, Murandu faces an uphill battle. Funding for further research would help him reach his ultimate goal – to convince the NHS to use sugar as an alternative to antibiotics. But a great deal of medical research is funded by pharmaceutical companies. And these companies, he points out, have little to gain from paying for research into something they can’t patent.

The sugar is the plain, granulated type you might use to sweeten your tea

The sugar Murandu uses is the plain, granulated type you might use to sweeten your tea. In the same in vitro trials, he found that there was no difference between using cane or beet sugar. Demerara, however, wasn’t as effective.

The pilot showed that strains of bacteria grew in low concentrations of sugar but were completely inhibited in higher concentrations. Murandu started recording case studies in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Lesotho (where he first trained in nursing). Included among them is a woman living in Harare.

“The woman’s foot had been measured, ready to be amputated, when my nephew called me,” Murandu says. “She had had a terrible wound for five years, and the doctor wanted to amputate. I told her to wash the wound, apply sugar, leave it and repeat.

“The woman still has her leg.”

This, he says, is one example of why there is so much interest in his methods, particularly from parts of the world where people can’t afford antibiotics.

Researchers like Moses Murandu are pushing for sugar to be considered an effective method of wound treatment (Credit: Getty Images)

In total, Murandu has now carried out clinical studies on 41 patients in the UK. He hasn’t yet published the trial results but has presented them at national and international conferences. One question he had to answer during his research was whether sugar could be used on diabetic patients, who commonly have leg and foot ulcers. Diabetics need to control the level of glucose in their blood so this isn’t an obvious healing method to use on them.

But he found that it worked for diabetics without sending their glucose levels soaring. “Sugar is sucrose – you need the enzyme sucrase to convert that into glucose,” he says. As sucrase is found within the body, it is only when the sugar is absorbed that it is converted. Applying it to the outside of the wound isn’t going to affect it in the same way.

While Murandu continues his research on human patients, across the Atlantic US veterinarian Maureen McMichael has been using this healing method on animals for years.

McMichael, who works at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, first started using both sugar and honey on pets back in 2002. She said it was a combination of the simplicity of the method and the low cost that attracted her – especially for pet owners who couldn’t afford the usual methods of bringing the animal to the hospital and using sedation.

McMichael says that they keep both sugar and honey in their surgery and often used it on dogs and cats (and occasionally on farm animals). Honey has similar healing properties to sugar (one study found it to be even more effective at inhibiting bacterial growth), though it is more expensive.

The sugar treatment may work on wounds afflicting not only people, but pets (Credit: Getty Images)

“We have had some really great successes with this,” McMichael says. She gave an example of a stray dog that had come to them after being used as “pitbull bait”, hung from a harness and attacked by pitbulls being trained for fighting. The dog came in with up to 40 bite wounds on each limb – and was healed within eight weeks.

“She was a stray so there was no money for her. We treated her with both honey and sugar and she did fabulously,” McMichael says. “She’s all healed now.”

As well as being cheaper, sugar has another upside: as more and more antibiotics are used, we are becoming resistant to them.

As well as being cheaper, sugar has another upside: as more and more antibiotics are used, we are becoming resistant to them

Back in the UK, tissue engineering specialist Sheila MacNeil of the University of Sheffeld has researched how naturally occurring sugars can be used to stimulate the re-growth of blood vessels. Her research stemmed from from her work on tumours, when she noticed that one particular small sugar derived from the breakdown of DNA (2-deoxy-D-ribose) kept cropping up. MacNeil’s team experimented by applying this sugar to the membrane surrounding chick embryos. According to MacNeil, the sugar stimulated double the number of blood vessels than would grow without it.

But of course these types of naturally occurring sugars found in our bodies are a long way from the type of everyday sugar used by Murandu in his experiments. The “dream ticket”, MacNeil says, would be to find a sugar that could be used in both ways. She believes this is the next step research should take.

Meanwhile in Wolverhampton, Murandu’s plan is to set up a private clinic using his sugar method. He hopes that one day sugar will be commonly used, not only by the NHS but also at public hospitals in some of the other countries where he has been working. He continues to get regular emails from around the world, asking for his advice – and guides patients remotely over email and texting. His far-away clients send him photos of their results along with their gratitude when they are healed.

It is an ancient method and one used unofficially by many poor people in developing countries, but for Murandu it was only by coming to the UK that he realised the significance sugar could have in the medical world. He sees it as a blending of his local knowledge with the modern research facilities in Britain.

“Like sugar, the knowledge came raw from Zimbabwe, was refined here – and is now going back to help people in Africa,” he says.

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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