April 7, 2015

Does a medieval medical text hold the cure for MRSA?



#Science. (Image via Wikipedia)

When the exploration of the natural sciences become a content-ready package, an interesting and exotic morsel you might hear on Radiolab or see paired with an unsourced photo on Facebook, the incredibly boring and unpopular part of the process tend to be downplayed.

The relentless high-wire act of getting your work published, the sweating over grants and every other grabs at funding, the endless unsexy scut work, widespread error and laziness, and the exhausting lack of actual neat final conclusions are all much less appealing to popular culture than the idea of “science” as a monolith of interesting, well-intentioned geniuses making the world a better, and more interesting world (for you!). The parts of science that are cool to the layperson tend to be limited to just that; you wouldn’t see Neil Degrasse Tyson hosting an hour-long special about running gels for eight hours straight.

But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that microbiologists teamed up with Viking experts at Nottingham University to test a 10th-century medical remedy made of garlic and bile on modern superbacteria, and that it worked. Via their statement:

Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the School of English has enlisted the help of microbiologists from University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences to recreate a 10th century potion for eye infections from Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English leatherbound volume in the British Library, to see if it really works as an antibacterial remedy. The Leechbook is widely thought of as one of the earliest known medical textbooks and contains Anglo-Saxon medical advice and recipes for medicines, salves and treatments.

Early results on the ‘potion’, tested in vitro at Nottingham and backed up by mouse model tests at a university in the United States, are, in the words of the US collaborator, “astonishing”. The solution has had remarkable effects on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which is one of the most antibiotic-resistant bugs costing modern health services billions.

The recipe for the eye salve isn’t as gross as you can imagine, but it’s up there.
The recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach). It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, a straining to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.

If you don’t know what MRSA is, you’re lucky; MRSA and its bacterial brethren are the wrath we brought on ourselves due to massive overuse of antibiotics, which is what allowed it and other treatment-resistant bacteria like CRE to mutate and proliferate in hospitals, where they continue to pose a grave threat to public health.

So does this compost juice hold some ancient cure to modern ailments? Dr. Freya Harrison, the microbiologist who led the experiment, notes that while this ancient remedy doesn’t represent a complete cure for MRSA, it is a significant and unexpected step forward in the research.

“The rise of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria and the lack of new antimicrobials in the developmental pipeline are key challenges for human health. 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.”

The academic value in this story is how a cross-disciplinary collaboration that could otherwise have just been a lark produced scientific results; the scientific value in this story comes from the unexpected applications of extant research (thanks, Bald!); and the capitalistic value lies in their low cost; we can be assured that Pfizer have already begun buying up garlic and cow bile futures. But the cultural value is in how this story gets retold and disseminated by the media, and how it will undoubtably contribute to the vision of research science as the shiny cool success factory that we all wish it would be. Because “miracle cure” stories are reliable drivers of traffic, though they usually consist of sponsored content or unverified research.

This is a cool story, just like the one about the envelope of smallpox tucked into a Civil War medical book or the ancient tattoos which may have indicated that acupuncture predates the Chinese. But any subsequent research that goes into breaking down this salve into its chemical constituents, analyzing their interplay and creating practical and widely available medicine will be the definition of uncool. It will be lengthy, un-cinematic, and you won’t find it in your timeline—which is as it should be.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.