Health & Medicine

A deadly modern disease may have an unexpected ancient cure

Bald's_Leechbook_page (1).jpg

A facsimile of a page from Bald's Leechbook.

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Wikimedia Commons

One growing malady owes its very existence to modern medicine, but the cure for it may stretch back a millenium.

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The antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria is a deadly and growing problem in many countries. So scientists at the University of Nottingham recently approached Christina Lee, a professor of English at the university who specializes in Anglo-Saxon texts, to see if an unconventional cure could be found. She's a founding member of a cross-disciplinary research network on "Disease, Disability and Medicine in Early Medieval Europe."

“The science people said, ‘In your period, people must have had infections?’" she remembers. "And I said, 'Yes, of course they did, and they died of them.' And they said ‘Well, did they have anything against them?’” 

Lee remembered a potion in a 10th century book called Bald’s Leechbook, a rare medical text that contains remedies for a wide variety of ailments. The one she had in mind was intended to treat eye infections. “We all looked at it, and then we thought, 'OK, why not try this?'" Lee says, and set about translating the recipe.

According to a press release from the university, that translation called 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.”

Scientists then painstakingly reconstructed the mixture, which has proved stunningly effective against MRSA in lab tests and on mice. In separate studies at both Nottingham and Texas Tech University, the researchers claim the mixture has killed up to 90 percent of the deadly bacteria that causes MRSA.

Dr. Kendra Rumbaugh, an associate professor at Texas Tech, called the results remarkable. “I’m a real skeptic," she says. "We have to test a lot of odd suggestions here. And this appears to be just as good or better than modern antibiotics.”

Many tests still need to be done, but the team is currently submitting its findings to scientific journals for publication.