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Scientists Uncover Ancient Remedy That Might Just Cure An Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug

Garlic and cow bile are just a few ingredients in this surprisingly effective 10th century potion.

"Bald's Leechbook" image via wikimedia commons

Garlic, leek, and bile from a cow’s stomach all sound like things you’d find bubbling in the witches’ cauldron during the opening moments of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In fact, they’re all part of an ancient remedy used by the Anglo-Saxons in the dark ages to help cure infected eyelash glands, referred to as styes. The concoction and others like it were all recorded in “Bald's Leechbook,” a 10th century compendium whose very name should tell you the overall level of medical sophistication we’re dealing with here.

Now, one thousand years after being written down, the odorous stye-curing recipe has been resurrected by University of Nottingham microbiologist Freya Harrison, with the help of Anglo-Saxon scholar Christina Lee, as part of “Antibiotics From The Medieval Medicine Cabinet,” an ongoing study which explores ancient texts for remedies to combat modern diseases. Amazingly, the potion was not only able to be recreated, but has demonstrated an incredible ability to combat Staphylococcus aureus, or as it's more commonly known: the highly antibiotic-resistant hospital superbug, MRSA.

Explains a release put out by the University of Nottingham:

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.

While unable to precisely duplicate the recipe due to changes in plant life over the last millenia, the Nottingham researchers approximated as best they could. Once the potion was complete, the microbiologists running the experiment were “genuinely astonished" when their remedy proved to be 90% effective at eliminating MRSA in infected lab mice.

“The big challenge,” explained researcher Steve Diggle in New Scientist, ”is trying to figure out why that combination works.” The recipe, it seems, is fairly temperamental, having reportedly failed to achieve any beneficial results in a similar experiment which took place in 2005. The key seems to be allowing the ingredients, which have little effectiveness on their own, to interact in proper proportion, for an exact length of time, before administering the potion to an infection.

The researchers have already blasted past a £1,000 crowdfunding goal for hiring a summer lab associate to help expedite research on the “Anglo-Saxon antibiotic.” Considering the team estimates S. aureus costs the United States alone nearly $10 billion in hospital admissions and treatment, a thousand pounds seems like a small price to help develop what looks like could be a particularly effective method of treatment.

Here’s doctors Harrison, Lee, and their colleagues, explaining more about their research:

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