Ancient potion beats superbug

Charles Darwin made an amazing leap in thought for all of us. Even those who philosophically disagree with the notion of evolution as the method by which the world has become the way it is, may still subliminally embrace many of its underlying principles. That’s because the idea that things gradually become better adapted is so pervasive that we don’t even question it. We all take for granted that cars today are better than cars of the 1950s and the iphone6 is automatically assumed to be a step up from the iphone4 and iphone5. There is a certain logic to that Darwinian way of thinking but the problem is that it means we generally underestimate the value of the old. This is nowhere more true than in medicine where we often laugh at the apparently child-like and inferior methods of the past. Yet people of past eras were not all fools and simpletons, even if they did not have a duplicate understanding of the world to ours, and some of their methods and practices had value. This has been shown graphically in a new study which has found that a 1,000 year old remedy for eye infections may be the answer to our modern problem of antibiotic resistance and superbugs.

Methicillin resistant Stap Aureus (MRSA) bacteria can cause skin infections, bloodstream infections, pneumonia, and surgical site infections. The problem is that MRSA infections are becoming harder and harder to treat as they are resistant to the antibiotics methicillin, oxacillin, and nafcillin. Ways to deal with MRSA are keenly sought as it is linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year. Enter…the 10th century text, “Bald’s Leechbook”.

Bald’s Leechbook is an Anglo-Saxon medical manual made up of three books compiled in the mid-tenth century. Written mostly in Old English, the primary translation of the three books was undertaken by a man called Reverend Cockayne in 1864. The Anglo-Saxons may not have had an understanding of germ theory and did now know about bacteria but they were trying to deal with diseases that resulted from infections and even though they may not have applied what we call the “scientific method”, surely some of their remedies must have had some veracity. With this belief in mind some researchers from the University of Nottingham tested a remedy from Bald’s Leechbook for eye infections.

The eye infection recipe required garlic, onions or leeks, and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach) and was to be brewed in a brass vessel, strained, and then left to stand for nine days before being applied to the eye. The researchers followed this recipe to the letter and then applied the potion to MRSA that had been grown on human collagen. The amazing result was that only one in every 1,000 bacteria survived. When they diluted the potion down so that it was not killing the bacteria the researchers found that it would still disrupt communication between bacteria meaning they could not cause tissue damage.

Really interestingly, when the individual elements of the potion (garlic, onions, copper, etc) were applied to MRSA they did not show a capacity to kill the bacteria. So there appears to be some synergy in the overall potion that gives its power. Indeed, the potion was even able to kill Staph aureus bacteria in biofilms (when bacteria clump together creating a sticky coating that prevents antibiotics from reaching them). When the researchers tested the potion on skin wounds in mice infected with MRSA, again the potion was effective.

It seems the experiments that led to the development of Bald’s eye infection potion were spot on, even if they were done without knowing about bacteria or the scientific method. Mind you, not everything that went into Bald’s Leechbook would necessarily be efficacious. One recipe for insanity went like this; “In case a man be a lunatic; take skin of a mereswine or porpoise, work it into a whip, swinge the man therewith, soon he will be well.” It is hard to see that being worked into modern counselling and psychotherapeutic methods. It is all a reminder though, that all is that old is not wrong or irrelevant and that all answers do not lie in what is new.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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