The antiseptic miramistin could prove an effective weapon in the battle against drug-resistant superbugs. Getty Images
  • An obscure antiseptic called miramistin, developed by the Soviet space program in the 1950s, may prove to have modern applications in the fight against harmful viruses and bacteria.
  • According to research, the compound is both environmentally friendly and superbug resistant.
  • Miramistin’s most potent clinical use is as a topical antiseptic on wounds, skin ulcers, and skin infections.
  • Clinical trials will be required to determine if the compound is effective on COVID-19.

It sounds like something out of a spy movie.

A compound called miramistin was developed for the Soviet Union’s Cold War space program. It can kill coronaviruses, influenza A, HPV (human papillomavirus), and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), and was secreted away from the West and only now just rediscovered by scientists in the United Kingdom. 

But the truth is a little less cloak-and-dagger and more a matter of circumstance and language barrier. 

“Almost all the papers are in Russian or Ukrainian. Only two I think there was ever published in the English language,” said David Denning from the University of Manchester, a co-author of a new U.K. study on miramistin. 

Denning’s colleague and lead author on the new study, Dr. Ali Osmanov, is from the Ukraine, where miramistin is still used in a clinical setting. He brought the antiseptic to Manchester’s research team for further — and more up-to-date — study. 

“When I looked it up, and Ali came, and we looked at the structure and talked about it, I said, ‘What? I’ve never heard of this! I mean I really know nothing about this at all.’”

“Miramistin has been overlooked in the West, and may have practical and environmental advantages,” Osmanov said in a press release. “Today, antiseptics act as a ‘last frontier’ against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and viruses, and also have an important role in infection control. Unfortunately, currently used antiseptics have some flaws.”

“For example, bleach can exacerbate asthma, and many of the older antiseptics are not active against coronaviruses,” he added.

This one is. 

Environmentally friendly and superbug resistant 

Miramistin has three major things going for it: It’s likely low toxicity, biodegradable, and has a lower likelihood of encouraging the growth of antibacterial-resistant “superbugs” than certain other antibacterials. 

For instance, compare it to triclosan, the antibacterial compound that has been banned from body washes in the United States and has been singled out for creating antibiotic-resistant germs

“It’s a pretty broad-spectrum antiseptic, so it’s probably working at the cell surface level and that’s a much harder thing for bugs to develop resistance to,” Denning told Healthline. 

Miramistin works because it damages the cell directly and is less likely to cause resistance than penicillin, for instance, which binds to the target cell that can become resistant over several generations of cell replication. 

“It’s possible, but much harder, so I think resistance development will not be as frequent,” he said. 

In addition, triclosan and other antibacterials like it which have a structure are such that they take a long time to break down in nature. That has environmental effects. 

“Because of this, triclosan has a negative impact on microbes in watercourses and when it goes down rivers — all that stuff,” Denning said. 

Meanwhile, miramistin has no known genotoxic effects and biodegrades somewhere between 88 and 93 percent, the researchers found. 

Clinical applications

All of that is good news for miramistin’s broad potential application as a surface antiseptic in more Western countries, perhaps in frontline hospitals where strong antiseptics are needed, and superbugs tend to develop and run rampant.

It also has the benefit of being less toxic over time than other common cleaners.

But don’t expect miramistin to be a COVID-19 killer just yet. It is effective on other coronaviruses but has yet to be tested on SARS-CoV-2.

Though it will likely be effective at killing that too, Denning said, a clinical trial is necessary before we can be certain. 

In any case, miramistin’s most potent clinical use is as a topical antiseptic on wounds, skin ulcers, and skin infections. 

One such use could have broad-ranging effects on a skin infection called superficial dermatophytosis, also known as ringworm, which is extremely common. 

That infection is usually treated with antifungal medication terbinafine (also known by name brand Lamisil), but now many cases of the disease are developing resistance to that drug. 

That’s where miramistin could step in. 

“[Miramistin] is very active against these fungi, so there might be a very direct application for skin use which we haven’t done yet, but there’s an opportunity there for treating resistant fungi, which might be quite interesting,” Denning told Healthline. 

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