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Deadly Cystic Fibrosis Bacterium Meets its Minty Nemesis

Intel is posting the following article solely for the purpose of promoting Intel's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs. It describes a science fair experiment conducted by 16-year-old Jenna Hartley.

Warning: Nebulized Peppermint has not been determined to be a safe or effective treatment for cystic fibrosis and should not be used for this purpose.

If you have questions, please contact the National Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at 800-344-4823 or your personal physician.

Did you know Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common bacterium, leads to fatality in 65 percent of cases for cystic fibrosis (CF) patients because antibiotics cannot effectively penetrate the slimy biofilm it creates in the lungs? Committed to discovering a better way to treat CF patients, 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair1 (Intel ISEF) participant Jenna Hartley started looking for a natural alternative to antibiotic treatment. She developed her ISEF project around the possible slime and bacteria fighting properties of peppermint oil.

Concerned about the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, Jenna Hartley had already begun investigating natural alternatives when the plight of her childhood friend, Sam, added a new sense of urgency to her research.

As a child, Sam was diagnosed with CF, a hereditary disease that causes thick mucus to build up in the lungs. It affects 30,000 children and young adults in the U.S. and 70,000 worldwide.2

Microbial infections, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, are the leading cause of mucus infections in CF patients. This bacterium is especially dangerous because it creates a slimy biofilm that is difficult for antibiotics to penetrate, leading to fatality in 65 percent of cases.

Motivated to help, Hartley examined natural agents, including Mentha piperita (peppermint oil), to see if any had potential to break through the slime and fight the bacteria. She also tested the standard antibiotic treatment, tetracycline, to compare results.

Throughout Hartley's ISEF experiments, Pseudomonas a. exhibited resistance to tetracycline. At low, non-lethal doses, tetracycline had very little effect on bacterial growth. Her experiment indicated only a lethal dose of the antibiotic led to total cell death.

However, in Hartley's lab experiments, she found that peppermint oil could inhibit Pseudomonas a. in both mucus and non-mucus environments.

Some day Hartley's ISEF experiment may lead medical researchers to a simple new form of treatment. Her interest in pursuing a career in medical research may one day provide Hartley with an opportunity to test the slime-fighting capabilities of nebulized peppermint. Hartley may even devise an experiment that can help the medical community determine if a few drops of peppermint oil in a nebulizer could yield other health benefits.

This research earned Hartley awards at numerous science competitions, as well as a spot at the 2013 ISEF. “Intel ISEF was amazing,” she says. “It was great to be around people who understood what I was doing.”

Hartley, 16, now volunteers in a hospital to gain knowledge of the medical field, her ultimate career goal. She plans to resume her research sometime, possibility in grad school, and hopes to see her work progress into clinical trials involving human subjects. 

“One day,” she says, “I hope my work will help eliminate Pseudomonas aeruginosa in the CF lung.”

ISEF winners

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

A program of Society for Science and the Public, Intel ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college science competition with over $4 million in awards.

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

A world leader in the search for a cystic fibrosis cure, the donor-supported nonprofit focuses on funding the development of new drugs, improving the quality of life for those afflicted, and ultimately finding a cure.

Jenna Hartley with display on Pseudomonas A. infections in the cystic fibrosis lung

Girls and women worldwide

Intel's programs for women transform the lives of girls and women around the globe, improving the lives of their children, families, and communities.

Product and Performance Information


1. A program of the Society for Science & the Public.

2. Source: http://www.cff.org/aboutcf/faqs/