A deadly modern disease may have an unexpected ancient cure

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Fans of folk medicine will get a kick out of our next story. It’s about MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is the curse of modern medicine; it’s an infection plaguing hospitals. It costs health services billions and kills many of its victims. As its name suggests, it’s super-resistant to antibiotics. But now there’s a lead on a new potential remedy, one that’s actually centuries old, and here to tell us about it is a professor of english of all things, Christina Lee from the University of Nottingham in England. What have you found, Christina?


Christina Lee: We’ve found that in an Anglo-Saxon LeechBook, which is from the 10th century, that there is a remedy, which is for a sty in the eye, that actually kills the bacteria that causes MRSA.


Werman: A remedy for a sty in the eye that kills MRSA. What is that remedy?


Lee: That remedy is a combination of various subtle ingredients. There’s some allium species, there’s some wine, they are pounded together and they are then added with a feather to the eye. We actually found that this is very useful.


Werman: What a minute, so allium--that’s like garlic and onions--and you mix that with wine and then you put it in the eye with a feather?


Lee: Yes, that’s what the recipe suggests, but obviously we haven’t done that yet. So, what we have done is we have tried it on a chronic wound model a number of times and we’ve also had some mouse trials, and they were all very, very interesting.


Werman: And when you say interesting, does that mean that MRSA was cured in these subjects?


Lee:  Yes.


Werman: Really?


Lee: Yes. We’ve seen it been cured; it’s been very effective against Staphylococcus.


Werman: So this was your idea in the first place, when the brainstorm opened up?


Lee: It was a collaborative idea. The science people said “In your period, people must have had infections,” and I said “Yes, of course they did. And they died of them.” They said “Well, did they have anything against them?” and I thought back. There was this remedy, we all kind of looked at it, and then we thought “Okay, why not try this?”


Werman: Yeah, so what is Bald’s LeechBook, this reference guide that you turned to from long ago that had this recipe, this cure in it?


Lee: Okay, it’s one of the Anglo-Saxon medical books. We have a number of Anglo-Saxon medical books, but this is a very unique one. There’s only one manuscript from the mid-10th century. The collection may be a little bit earlier.


Werman: So the title, “The LeechBook” suggests what?


Lee: Leech is the name for the medieval doctor, and we call it Bald’s LeechBook because it tells us that the book was owned by someone called Bald.


Werman: So Christina, what’s the next step? How soon could we potentially see this cure at hospitals that are plagued with MRSA?


Lee: This is early doors still. We have found out that it is the sum of ingredients that works, but we now need to find out what exactly is working here. We are hoping that we can produce something soon. But of course we need to do some really thorough tests.


Werman: It is April Fools tomorrow. You’re not getting on the case early, are you?


Lee: Nope.


Werman: This is for real.


Lee: It is, it is. My colleagues, Freya Harrison and Steve Diggle, who are partners in this project, are giving a big paper on that tomorrow. But we just thought, you know, it’s probably not a good idea to break the story to the press on the first of April.


Werman: Christina Lee, professor of english at the University of Nottingham. Thank you very much.


Lee: Thank you.


Werman: So, there you have it. The past possibly providing some valuable information for modern medicine. Speaking of which, The World’s history guy, Chris Woolf, recently did a little digging into the history of vaccines. Did you  know that George Washington is also the founding father of mass immunization in America? Chris explains all in a video we’ve posted at PRI.ORG.