Medieval medicine

By | Science & Technology
Scanning electron micrograph of a human neutrophil ingesting MRSA. Credit@NationalInstitutesofHealth(NIH)

A modern-day recreation of an Anglo-Saxon remedy for styes appears to also relieve the body of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – the antibiotic resistant superbug MRSA. The recent work by an unorthodox collaboration of researchers at The University of Nottingham might help produce drugs for challenging skin conditions caused by bacteria. “Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…” says the thousand-year-old recipe, according to New Scientist. The researchers presented their results at the annual meeting of the Society for General Microbiology, held in Birmingham from 30th March to 2nd April.

The idea to recreate the medieval recipe came about when Anglo-Saxon expert Christina Lee, from the School of English, enlisted the help of Freya Harrison’s microbiology team to find out if the ‘potion’ from Bald’s Leechbook (an old English medical compendium) really worked as an antibacterial remedy.

According to Harrison, sourcing authentic ingredients for the remedy was a significant challenge since modern crop varieties may be very different to whatever flourished over 1,000 years ago. Hoping for the best with present-day leeks and garlic, they went on to find an organic vintage wine from a historic English vineyard. “Brass vessels” were the container of choice according to the remedy, however Harrison decided to use glass bottles with brass added into the mixture. This is because a brass container may be expensive to sterilise. An easier time was had locating bullock’s gall because people without gall bladders are typically given bovine bile salts supplements.

“We chose this recipe in Bald’s Leechbook because it contains ingredients such as garlic that are currently investigated by other researchers on their potential antibiotic effectiveness,” Christina Lee said.

The results of the recipe appeared to astonish the researchers. In addition to clearing up styes, the concoction was also capable of protecting mice from any trace of MRSA when placed on any wounds. MRSA is any bacterial strain of Staphylococcus aureus that has developed resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics through natural selection. These include penicillins and cephalosporins.

The remedy might provide a potentially life-saving innovation to hospitals, prisons and nursing homes – where MRSA is particularly challenging because people there often have exposed wounds and more vulnerable immune systems than the general population.

“We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab…we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.” Harrison explained.

A group of scientists at Texas Tech University repeated Harrison and Lee’s experiment with results “as good or better” than typical antibiotics. The question is now – how do these ingredients act together to treat MRSA? The AncientBiotics team at Nottingham University is currently applying for additional funding to trial the remedy on humans.

A recipe for the potion to treat antibiotic-resisant superbugs, originally an eye salve, was found in Bald's Leechbok, a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon medical compendium found in the British Library. Credit@TheBritishLibraryBoard

A recipe for the potion to treat antibiotic-resisant superbugs, originally an eye salve, was found in Bald’s Leechbok, a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon medical compendium found in the British Library. Credit@TheBritishLibraryBoard

Lee described how different disciplines coming together may help produce innovative solutions to the public health challenges of antibiotic resistance and small numbers of antimicrobials in the pipeline: “We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab. We believe modern research into [conditions] may benefit from past responses and knowledge, which is largely contained in non-scientific writings… the potential of these texts to contribute to addressing the challenges [may] be understood with the combined expertise of both the arts and science.” Understanding links between medieval scholarship and medical science may uncover new ways of treating a number of bacterial conditions.

Where else might scientists discover ancient texts that point to effective modern medicines?

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