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Medieval meds combat MRSA

April 1, 2015
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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Under increasing pressures to reduce readmission rates and curb outbreaks of dangerous microbial infections, long-term care clinicians are eager to find new ideas to combat virulent infectious germs—even when new ideas turn out to be very old ideas.

Christina Lee, an associate professor in the English department of the University of Nottingham, UK, wondered if the medicinal recipes in a 1,100-year-old medieval manuscript would work on today’s bacteria. The Old English medical text, called Bald’s Leechbook, contains treatment recipes for hundreds of ailments ranging from a finger blister to cancer.

Lee took the recipes to microbiologist Freya Harrison, a research fellow at the university’s School of Life Sciences. Harrison and her colleagues made a batch of an eye stye salve, the recipe for which called for onions, stomach bile from a cow, wine and other ingredients steeped in a brass or copper vessel for more than a week.

"We thought that Bald's eye salve 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," Harrison said in an article posted by CBS News. "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."

The ancient salve was stunningly effective at killing one of the nastiest modern-day pathogens: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

"When we built this recipe in the lab I didn't really expect it to actually do anything," team microbiologist Steve Diggle said in the CBS article. "When we found that it could actually disrupt and kill cells in S. aureus biofilms, I was genuinely amazed. Biofilms are naturally antibiotic resistant and difficult to treat, so this was a great result."

The cross-department research team will present their findings this week at the annual conference of the Society for General Microbiology, the largest academic microbiological society in Europe.

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