Large doses of vitamin B3 may treat staph infections, study says

New research indicates vitamin B3, also known as nicotinamide, may be able to fight off antibiotic-resistant staph infections that have plagued hospitals and killed thousands worldwide.

Staph infections, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are increasingly prevalent in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and the military, as well as other settings where people are in close contact with each other.  The spread of these infections is attributed to the overuse of antibiotics, leading bacteria to develop resistance to the drugs.

“Finding new ways to fight antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ has become a priority for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) in the past 10 years,” senior study author Dr. George Liu, associate professor of pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA, told  “MRSA recently surpassed HIV in terms of mortality, so it became much more urgent of a problem.”

In a study, Liu and his colleagues found when vitamin B3 was administered at clinical doses far higher than what would be found in a normal diet, it increased the ability of immune cells to kill staph bacteria by approximately 1,000 times – in as little as a few hours. The effect was observed in both laboratory animals and human blood samples.

“Nicotinamide greatly increased the ability of the immune system to kill pathogens  - there were very few left surviving [after 24 hours],” researcher Adrian Gombart, associate professor at the  Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, told “On the surface, it looks very promising, but we need to do studies in humans.”

According to the researchers, vitamin B3 fought off staph infections by increasing the number and effectiveness of white blood cells called neutrophils.  These specialized blood cells are responsible for killing and eating harmful bacteria in the body.

The study researchers hope the findings may be a new approach in the fight against growing numbers of superbugs.

“I think nicotinamide would be used in conjunction with antibiotics [if proven effective in humans],” Gombart said.  “On one hand, you’d be directly targeting the bacteria with an antibiotic, affecting the bacteria’s ability to grow, and on the other, you’d have nicotinamide boosting the immune response, so you have a multi-pronged attack.”

Liu explained there are several advantages to administering a vitamin, rather than developing a newer, stronger antibiotic.

“One of the new concerns with antibiotics is how they affect the gut – they kill lots and lots of beneficial bacteria and the effect of that is just starting to be appreciated,” Liu said.  “Lots of bacteria help maintain health so by destroying the balance, it could lead to disease in the future.

“With a vitamin, you’re affecting a much smaller bacteria population, so not only are you preserving gut bacteria, but there’s also a greater likelihood that you won’t induce resistance,” he added.

The researchers cautioned there is currently no evidence that indicates normal diets or over-the-counter strength supplements of vitamin B3 can prevent or treat bacterial infections, and people should not start taking high doses of the vitamin as a form of self-medication.

The study findings were published Monday in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.