Anglo-Saxon eye potion helps fight against superbug (Wired UK)


Recipe page for the eye salve from Bald’s Leechbook

© The British Library Board (Royal 12 D xvii)

A treatment for eye infections that dates back to the
Anglo-Saxon era has been found to successfully attack the modern
hospital “superbug” MRSA

Collaborative research
at the University of Nottingham between Christina Lee, an
Anglo-Saxon expert from the School of English, and microbiologist
Freya Harrison, led to a recreation of the ointment, which dates
back to the 10th century, and was used to treat common eye
infections such as styes. 

The concoction, discovered in Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English
medical textbook kept at the British Library, was mixed from a
rather potent list of ingredients — wine, leeks, garlic and ox
gall from a cow’s stomach — and then left to ferment in a copper
pot for nine days. However, as Lee tells, it
was initially difficult to accurately remake the recipe, as the
manuscript didn’t include exact quantities, meaning some trial and
error was required to make it.

As part of The AncientBiotics Project, the salve was tested in
vitro at Nottingham and in mouse model tests at the University of
Texas, and then against modern bugs. The results were described by
Lee as “absolutely phenomenal”: it was found to be more successful
than conventional antibiotics at treating Methicillin-resistant
Staphylococcus aureus, better known as the scourge of modern
hospital wards, MRSA. 

The AncientBiotics ProjectUniversity of Nottingham

The team made four separate batches of the remedy and tested it
on the bacteria known to cause the notoriously difficult-to-treat
superbug, in both synthetic and infected wounds on mice. During the
tests, in which bacteria was grown in collagen and then exposed to
both the individual ingredients and the full recipe, only the
combination of ingredients proved effective. However, the potion’s
bacteria-killing properties proved remarkable, with only around one
bacterial cell in a thousand surviving its

Dr Harrison found that the brew was ‘self-sterilising’, meaning
that around 90 percent of bacteria exposed to it during the
fermentation period were killed off. The team further explored the
infection-fighting properties of the eye ointment by seeing what
happened when it was watered down, to mimic how the medicine could
perform when applied to a real-life infection.

They found that even in cases when the MRSA-generating bacteria
weren’t wiped out, the recipe still interfered with bacterial
cell-cell communication, which could stop bacteria talking to each
other and attack infected tissues. There are hopes that this could
open the door to new ways of treating infections and offer an
alternative to routinely prescribed

In a press release, Harrison comments: “We were absolutely blown
away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was. We
tested it in difficult conditions too; 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. But unlike many
modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these

Lee says she hopes science can ally with medieval studies to
help lead the way in modern medicine: “Medieval is often used as a
pejorative term today when, in fact, there existed a ‘pragmatic
Middle Ages’: they had reason and sense. Indeed, many of the
ingredients used in Bald’s eye salve, including garlic and alcohol,
are still used for their medicinal properties today, showing just
how forward-thinking they were.” 

There’s still a long way to go, however, before we discover just
how effective the treatment is for humans. The AncientBiotics team
is currently seeking more funding to extend the research, with
Harrison presenting the findings at the Annual Conference of the
Society for General Microbiology, which starts on 30 March
2015 in Birmingham.

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31 March 2015 | 4:27 pm – Source:


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