Madlen Davies — Mail Online March 31, 2015
A thousand year-old potion made out of onions, garlic, wine and bile from a cow’s stomach can kill hospital superbugs, scientists claim.
The potent 10th century brew – used by Anglo Saxons to treat a stye (an abscess on the eyelid) destroyed 90 per cent of the bacteria on scraps of skin taken from mice with MRSA.
Interestingly, the ingredients had little effect unless they were all brought together into the concoction, the study by Nottingham University researchers found.
The ancient remedy, called Bald’s eyesalve, originates from a manuscript in Bald’s Leechbook – an Old English leatherbound volume in the British Library.
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.
After using the solution on lab animals with MRSA – one of the most antibiotic-resistant bugs costing modern health services billions – the researchers described their results as ‘astonishing.’
Associate Professor Dr Christina Lee, of the University of Nottingham, said: ‘Medieval leech books and herbaria contain many remedies designed to treat what are clearly bacterial infections – weeping wounds and sores, eye and throat infections, skin conditions such as the erysipelas rash, leprosy and chest infections.
‘Given these remedies were developed well before the modern understanding of germ theory, this poses two questions.
‘How systematic was the development of these remedies and how effective were these remedies against the likely causative species of bacteria?
‘Answering these questions will greatly improve our understanding of medieval scholarship and medical empiricism and may reveal new ways of treating serious bacterial infections that continue to cause illness and death.’
The Anglo Saxon expert came up with the idea of trying out the recipe.
It describes a very specific method of making the solution, including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, a strainer to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.
She enlisted the help of microbiologists who believe the potion’s bacteria-killing effect is not due to a single ingredient but the combination used, brewing methods and container material.
Further research is planned to investigate how and why this works.
Dr Lee said: ‘We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab.
‘We believe modern research into disease can benefit from past responses and knowledge which is largely contained in non-scientific writings.
‘But the potential of these texts to contribute to addressing the challenges cannot be understood without the combined expertise of both the arts and science.’
The scientists made four separate batches of the remedy using fresh ingredients each time as well as a control treatment using the same quantity of distilled water and brass sheet to mimic the brewing container but without the vegetable compounds.
The remedy was tested on cultures of the commonly found – and hard to treat – bacteria Staphylococcus aureus in both synthetic wounds and in infected wounds in mice.
None of the individual ingredients alone had any measurable effect, but when combined according to the recipe, the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) populations of bacteria, were almost totally obliterated.
Only about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.
Microbiologist Dr Freya Harrison, also of the University of Nottingham, said: ‘We thought Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab.
Copper and bile salts can kill bacteria and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues.
‘But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.
‘We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial “infections” grow into dense, mature populations called “biofilms”, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them.
‘But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.’
The findings were presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology in Birmingham.