A thousand-year-old potion found in an Old English manuscript in the British Library to treat an eye infection has amazed the scientific world. Researcher at the University of Nottingham found it to be very effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.
Combating MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the biggest challenges hospitals face each year. Due to overuse of and overexposure to antibiotics, some bacterial strains have evolved to withstand our drugs. This gives rise to a whole army of superbugs which are very hard to treat and cause the death of at least 23,000 people each year.
Anglo-Saxon expert Dr. Christina Lee, from the University of Nottingham, found and translated this “eye salve” from Bald’s Leechbook, which is a collection of ancient remedies to treat a wide range of ailments.
Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks’ gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days in the brass vessel, wring out through a cloth and clear it well, put it into a horn, and about night time apply it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom. — Recipe to treat a stye, translated from Bald’s Leechbook.
Only after teaming up with colleague Dr. Freya Harrison and her team from the microbiology department were they able to recreate the ancient salve.
They tried to make the remedy as close as possible to the original recipe, which was not easy since our crops now differ a lot from the ones in the 10th century.
They tested the eye salve on a large culture of MRSA, and the results were rather unexpected.
“We did not see this coming at all,” said microbiologist Harrison, the lead researcher. “We thought that Bald’s eye salve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity. … But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was,” she added.
They found that the unique combination of Bald’s eye salve killed up to 90 percent of MRSA. To back up their findings, Texas Tech University tested the salve on MRSA skin wounds on mice and came to the same conclusion.
The salve might be more powerful than any antibiotic on the market right now.
“We let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms,’ where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them,” Harrison said in a statement. “But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defenses.”
This new study shows us that we can learn important lessons from our past. It is actually not the first time researchers found the answer in nature instead of the lab. There may be a lot of dodgy medieval practices and remedies out there, but great wisdom is hiding in these ancient books as well. Artemisinin to treat malaria, for instance, is another substance that came to us via an age-old Chinese medical text.
“This truly cross-disciplinary project explores a new approach to modern health care problems by testing whether medieval remedies contain ingredients which kill bacteria or interfere with their ability to cause infection,” Dr. Harrison concluded.
This research project will be presented at the Society for General Microbiology conference in Birmingham, UK, and the results will also be submitted to the journal Nature.