Instead of moving forward, researchers are looking to the past for solutions to the antibiotic crisis. The “Ancientbiotics” team is a group of scientists from different universities and countries unified by the belief that medieval medical history holds the key to beating drug-resistant superbugs. “To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past,” states Erin Connelly, an expert in medieval medicine from the University of Pennsylvania in an article in DailyMail.co.uk.
Among the discoveries Connelly and her team made was a 1,000-year old eyesalve recipe against sties. The pilot study, published by the American Society of Microbiology in 2015, discussed Bald’s eyesalve from “Bald’s Leechbook”, an Old English medical text. The recipe called for wine, garlic, an Allium plant and ox gall (bile from the stomach of a cow) to be mixed and left to stand in a brass vessel for nine nights. Connelly and her team found that Bald’s eyesalve was a powerful antistaphylococcal agent. In particular, they learned that it was highly effective against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a superbug responsible for a wide array of chronic infections, and one resistant to many modem antibiotics. (Related: Ancient onion and garlic medicinal recipe cures drug-resistant superbug infections)
A similar breakthrough was made by chemist Tu Youyou, recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Youyou was awarded for her discovery of a new malaria therapy after going through over 2,000 recipes from ancient Chinese texts on herbal medicine. The chemist found the answer in a hundreds-year-old text, “The Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies” by Ge Hong from the East Jin Dynasty. Ge Hong prescribes sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) as a treatment for malaria. Youyou and her team were eventually able to isolate the compound that attacks malaria-causing parasites—a compound that has since become a vital tool in the battle against malaria in Asia and Africa.
“Is another ‘silver bullet’ for microbial infection hidden within medieval European medical literature?” asks Connelly.
Currently, Connelly and her team are working on a 15-century medical text, “Lylye of Medicynes.” A Middle English translation of the Latin “Lilium medicinae”, the text is a translation of the work of a noteworthy medieval physician by the name of Bernard of Gordon. The “Lilium medicinae” was first completed in 1305 then translated and printed continuously well into the late 17th century. According to Connelly, the text contains a “wealth of medical recipes” easily numbering at 360 recipes with thousands of ingredients.
“Further research may show that some medieval medicines were more than placebos or palliative aids, but actual ‘ancientbiotics’ used long before the modern science of infection control,” states Connelly. “Our work suggests that there could be a methodology behind the medicines of medieval practitioners, informed by a long tradition of observation and experimentation.”
More tests and studies are being carried out. Connelly is still uncertain of what makes the eyesalve so effective. However, she is positive that archaic European medicine is ripe with untapped clinical potential. The medieval medical database Connelly and her team are working on is proof of the richness in pre-modern history.
Connelly makes special note of the standstill in the “drug discovery pipeline”, of how current antibiotics are losing their efficacy against microbes. “An estimated 700,000 people around the world die annually from drug-resistant infections. If the situation does not change, it is estimated that such infections will kill 10 million people per year by 2050,” Connelly warns.