A plant-based ointment recipe pulled from a 1,000-year-old manuscript is spiking excitement about what historical knowledge and traditional remedies can do to defuse the antibiotic crisis. At the same time, it’s highlighting how difficult it can be to move any compound—natural or synthetic, ancient or modern—from the lab bench to where it might do the most good.
You might have seen coverage of this: At the annual conference of the British Society for General Microbiology last week, a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham in England and Texas Tech University in the United States presented the results of their attempt to translate and manufacture an ointment described in a medieval manuscript held at the British Library. (The abstract doesn’t seem to be online, except within the conference program, so I snipped it and uploaded it to my Scribd account here.) The text, called Bald’s Leechbook, is in Anglo-Saxon; you can think of it as one of the earliest medical textbooks written in the West. The recipe is presented as a remedy for styes, pustular infections of an eyelash follicle that, in the pre-antibiotic era—and the 10th century was definitely pre-antibiotics—could cause blindness or even death if the infection spread to the nearby brain. It specifies garlic, leek, onion, honey, and bile from the digestive system of a slaughtered cow, and describes in detail how the potion should be made, by boiling up a solution in a brass vessel and fermenting it.
And, apparently, it works. The UK arm of the team translated the recipe, concocted it, and conducted initial tests on bacteria on culture plates. The US side tested it on infected tissue harvested from lab mice. In both settings, the potion killed MRSA, drug-resistant staph—and killed at higher rates than vancomycin, a last-ditch drug that medicine reserves for serious infections with that superbug.
“We were really surprised, and I was surprised,” Christina Lee, PhD, a medieval scholar on the team, confessed by phone. “I have always held up the idea of the pragmatic Middle Ages, that they had knowledge and method, but I was not sure whether that would hold up.”
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Credit Maryn McKenna