Sweet healing

If you were asked what the best use for sugar is, what would you say? Sweetening your tea perhaps, or maybe baking a tasty cake. But would healing wounds cross your mind?

That is precisely what Moses Murandu is researching currently. It is one of the more unusual research projects being carried out by University staff, but it is also one of the most interesting. His work could have major implications not only for the health service in the UK but for developing countries all over the world.

Senior Lecturer Moses grew up in Zimbabwe, and whenever he or his brothers suffered injuries, his father Majazi Aron would use granulated sugar to heal the wound and reduce pain. It was only when Moses moved to the UK that he realised this simple but effective treatment was not used everywhere. 

The sugar works because bacteria need water to grow, and applying sugar to a wound draws the water away. Because there is less water the body responds by getting the heart to beat faster and increase blood flow to the area. This brings white cells that fight infection and oxygen and nutrients that enhance cell regeneration.

An uphill struggle

However, Moses faced an uphill struggle to get his research into the healing effects of sugar under way, visiting three different health trusts without success. His fortunes changed when he was introduced to consultant vascular surgeon at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, Mr Malcolm Simms, who had worked in Uganda himself and encountered the use of sugar there.

Moses carried out six months of research into the effects of sugar on wounds such as bed sores, leg ulcers and even amputations on patients on the vascular ward at Selly Oak. In 2009, he submitted an abstract detailing the project to the prestigious Fondation Le Lous and was awarded the Scientific Research Innovation Award, worth £25,000.

This has enabled the project to develop further, and a randomised control trial is currently under way at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. For this, Moses is using two types of sugar – white granulated sugar from sugar beet and white granulated from sugar cane. There was slight activity with brown sugar, and for this reason only the two white granulated sugars are being used.

Moses, a Senior Lecturer in Adult Nursing at the School of Health and Wellbeing, explains: “The cleaning of the wound was good and the reduction of odour was very good. We found the pain was reduced for the patients that had the sugar treatment. The cost of our dressings was quite manageable and the nursing and medical staff were happy from the survey we did.

“The most important survey is the patients, and they loved it. Many of them were very surprised that it worked and others wondered why it had not been used before. Some of them actually said, ‘do you mean the sugar you use in tea?’ and we said ‘yes!’”

An important consideration is the effect on diabetic patients. Moses explains diabetic patients were tested and monitored closely as the sugar was applied. The results were encouraging, as the sugar worked and there was no blood sugar level increase.

A global impact

The next stage of the research will involve evaluating all the results and looking at the economic impact.

“With wound management, we need a dressing that can reduce pain, be effective and also be affordable,” Moses says. “We are not only trying to do this for the UK, we are trying to do it globally and there are countries that don’t have the money that developing countries have. It will benefit other countries like Zimbabwe where I came from.”

Moses emphasises that at every stage, his motivation has been the patients he wants to help heal and get better. He is extremely grateful for all the support he has received along the way.

“I am so grateful to the University of Wolverhampton and School of Health and Wellbeing for allowing me to enter academia because without them, I could not have reached the stage I am at now.

“I was in a clinical setting before and could see the suffering, but could do nothing because I had no background to influence the policy makers. I owe a lot to my father for his encouragement. He was a very poor man but he always said we had to help people whenever we can. That was embedded in me, and what I wanted to do was to see patients getting better.”

Moses describes Mr Simms as an ‘angel sent by God’, and is also grateful to Dr Carol Dealey, Research Fellow at the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and University of Birmingham, who bridged the gap between them. Moses also pays tribute to Professor Colette Clifford, who was his supervisor while he was completing his Masters at Birmingham, and gave him so much encouragement to pursue his research.

The pioneering sugar research continues to attract a lot of interest and discussion, and was featured on the BBC’s The One Show recently. And seeing sugar being used on hospital wards could happen sooner than you might think. The project is expected to take two years, and Moses estimates it could be in use by the NHS within three years.

One thing is certain, Moses Murandu is extremely committed to his sugar research and however long it takes, will persevere and overcome whatever challenges may face him along the way for the sake of the many patients he believes will benefit from his work.