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Strange Medieval Potion Works to Kill Modern Bacteria

In this pandemic age when the fearful and/or the political among us seem willing to try any antidote or cure to ward off the coronavirus, some researchers are studying medieval remedies in their search for new medicines in old places. One of these so-called “ancientbiotics” comes from a 9th century Old English medical text (a loose usage of the term) called “Bald’s Leechbook.” While leeches are still used for blood clotting today, a salve containing ox bile meant to be used for eye ailments sounds like a tough sell today … yet a new scientific paper is touting it. Are eye of newt, scale of a dragon, wolf’s tooth and the stomach of a ravenous shark next?

“We previously reconstructed a 1,000-year-old remedy containing onion, garlic, wine, and bile salts, known as ‘Bald’s eyesalve’, and showed it had promising antibacterial activity. In this current paper, we have found this bactericidal activity extends to a range of Gram-negative and Gram-positive wound pathogens in planktonic culture and, crucially, that this activity is maintained against Acinetobacter baumannii, Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Streptococcus pyogenes in a soft-tissue wound biofilm model.”

A copy of a page in Balds Leechbook

Biofilms are a collective of one or more types of microorganisms that can grow on many different surfaces. Dental plaque is a common example but the key to the significance of this paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is that most antibiotics don’t work against biofilms. One particularly bad biofilm is Staphylococcus aureus – the bane of hospital staffs. In searching for help, some researchers turned to Bald’s Leechbook, whose name comes from a verse in its second book: “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit,” which is Latin for “Bald owns this book which he ordered Cild to compile.” “Leechbook” comes from the Old English word lǣce-bōc — lǣce means ‘medical doctor’ and ‘bōc’ is book – making it Bald’s medical book, the only surviving copy of which is in the British Library Royal in London. Scientist Christina Lee from the School of English at the University of Nottingham found the formula for Bald’s eyesalve and discovered it was an effective antibacterial compound against Staphylococcus aureus.

“We have found the potent anti-biofilm activity of Bald’s eyesalve cannot be attributed to a single ingredient and requires the combination of all ingredients to achieve full activity.”

All we need now is some wine and ox bile.

In the new study led by Freya Harrison from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, researchers tested Bald’s eye salve on mice and humans and found that it had “promising antibacterial activity” against other deadly biofilms without harming soft tissue. Trying to find its secret, they tested the simple components individually and discovered the anti-biofilm ability only existed in the ancient combination.

Did they really make people put garlic, onions and bile in their eyes?

Yes, and Harrison tells Gizmodo they will do it again, along with other substances you might not expect to be anti-bacterial, all inspired by ancient remedies from texts like “Bald’s Leechbook” and a Civil War field guide which described effective antibacterial plant-based salves.

“Most antibiotics that we use today are derived from natural compounds, but our work highlights the need to explore not only single compounds but mixtures of natural products for treating biofilm infections. We think that future discovery of antibiotics from natural products could be enhanced by studying combinations of ingredients, rather than single plants or compounds.”

Yet another reason to never throw away old books.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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