Scanning electron micrograph of a human neutrophil ingesting MRSA. The MRSA featured is the USA300 strain. Credit: NIAID

We all know that ancient medical practices weren't exactly "scientific" in nature. Often, treatments relied on superstitions and half understood legends, which is why this discover is so surprising.

Recently, Anglo-Saxon expert Christina Lee, from the School of English at Nottingham University, mixed together a "potion" dating from the 10th century in order to see if it would really work as it was supposed to (as an antibacterial remedy). Lee translated the recipe from Old English, and she didn't really have any hopes that the concoction would actually work.

But it did. In fact, it worked a lot better than planned.

The mixture helped fight styes (which is what it was supposed to do, allieviate eye infections); however, more than that, it took on the deadly superbug MRSA, which is resistant to many antibiotics.

The 'eyesalve' recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion), wine, and oxgall (which is really just bile from a cow’s stomach). Alone, these materials weren't effective at doing anything, well, except maybe  giving off a rather pungent smell (as anyone who has cut onion or smelled the inside of a cow would tell you). However, when they were combined together as the recipe indicated, eye infections cleared and MRSA populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.

This is staggeringly good news, as antibiotic resistant superbugs are kind of a big deal.

The discovery of penicillin back in 1928 revolutionized our world—in more ways than one. For the first time in history, infections could be fought with tools that were more advanced than medieval medical practices like bloodletting, leeches, and, well, crossed fingers. Finally, we could really fight back.

Now, nearly 90 years later, so can the bugs.

Unfortunately, our power to treat infection is slipping from our hands. According to the Center for Disease Control, 23,000 people die every year because of antibiotic-resistant infections. And the numbers are rising, because superbugs are becoming stronger—more resistant.

Ultimately, there are a number of tuberculosis strains that are totally drug-resistant, and New Zealand just announced its first death from a completely drug-resistant bacterial infection. If that's not enough, there haven't really been any new antibiotics put out in the last 25 years. Our tool kit hasn't really grown. But now, Lee's discovery may give us a new way to fight.

Scientists say this 10th-century "eyesalve" recipe killed 90% of the MRSA bacteria in lab tests. Credit: University of Nottingham

No one is more surprised by this discovery than Lee. “We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab,” said Dr Lee. "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.”

Dr Lee translated the recipe from Bald’s Leechbook, a leatherbound Old English manuscript that is kept in the British Library.  Scientist Dr Steve Diggle states that he was also taken by surprise: “When we built this recipe in the lab I didn't really expect it to actually do anything. When we found that it could actually disrupt and kill cells in (MRSA) biofilms, I was genuinely amazed.”

So are we, Dr. Diggle, so are we.

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