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This Medieval Potion Tackles Antibiotic Resistant Bugs Like No Other

Apr 02, 2015 08:29 PM EDT
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Remedies from the Dark Ages certainly don't sound like trustworthy things. After all, they are from a time when healers slapped leeches on their patients and walked around warding off "evil smells," which were thought to be the root of infection. However, one potion has survived that may even help patients today, even overcoming resilient superbugs that antibiotics can no longer handle.

This "potion," as researchers at the University of Nottingham call it, is named "Bald's eye salve," and was designed to - you guessed it - treat eye infections. It originates from a 10th century manuscript in the British Library titled "Bald's Leechbook," which may be one of the earliest known medical textbooks ever found. It contains pages and pages of Anglo-Saxon medical advice and recipes for medicines, salves, and treatments.

Christina Lee, a member of the university's Institute for Medieval Research, was the first to closely analyze and translate the salve's recipe, which calls for a very specific method for combining two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow's stomach). The mixture then has to be left for nine days before being used - slapped directly onto a patient's eye.

And like any good scientist, Lee's curiosity got the better of her; she had to see if this potion actually works.

She and her colleagues recreated the recipe to the best of their ability, even going as far as using a brass container to brew the mixture. They then made artificial wound infections by growing Staphylococcus aureus (commonly called Staph infection) in plugs of lab-side collagen. It was theorized that, as the salve was intended to treat general bacterial infections, it should be able to treat any kind, not just of the eye.

And they were right. After exposing the infections to each individual ingredient (to no effect) the researchers tested the full potion on the collagen. Amazingly, only one in a thousand bacterial cells survived the potion's assault. They also found that even when diluted, the potion still interfered with bacterial cell-to-cell communication - effectively silencing the "talk" that infection colonies need to have to damage tissue.

"We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab," Lee said in a statement. "We believe modern research into disease can benefit from past responses and knowledge, which is largely contained in non-scientific writings." (Scroll to read on...)

Freya Harrison a microbiologist who presented these astounding preliminary results at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology, in Birmingham, echoed Lee's sentiment.

"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 ­- copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria's ability to damage infected tissues." she explained. "But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was."

Harrison added that the team even tested the salve on very intense infections - creating mature populations that are naturally very resistant to antibiotics, as medicines have a hard time getting through thick biofilms protecting the bacteria.

"But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald's eye salve has the power to breach these defenses," she said, explaining that it sunk straight through the film.

Since then, in vivo testing in the United States on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) - a growing problem preceding what the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling a "post-antibiotic age" - has shown that the Dark Age salve can even effectively treat progressing skin infections in live mice.

"The rise of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria and the lack of new antimicrobials in the developmental pipeline are key challenges for human health," Harrison said. "There is a pressing need to develop new strategies against pathogens because the cost of developing new antibiotics is high and eventual resistance is likely. This truly cross-disciplinary project explores a new approach to modern health care problems" - and one that could not have come too soon.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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