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A Medieval Cow Bile Stew Could Teach Us How to Fight Modern Infections

Ancient texts may be more valuable to researchers than we thought.

Everything old is new again. Nowhere is that more true than in the research of a multidisciplinary team of scientists and medieval scholars who discovered that by replicating a treatment for a sty (an eyelash follicle infection) from a medical text from Anglo-Saxon times, they created a potent antibiotic for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Christina Lee, a professor of Viking studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK, never thought she would be part of a team that discovered a new antibiotic. "Never in my wildest dreams," she says, with a laugh. The formula in the 10th century medical text, called "Bald's Leechbook," involves mixing garlic, onion, wine, and cow bile in a brass vessel before letting the mixture sit for nine days to ferment. The resulting concoction, brewed up by the researchers in a modern glass container with a brass square placed in it to replicated a brass vessel, proved 90 percent effective in killing MRSA in laboratory testing, says Kendra Rumbaugh, a professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Rumbaugh, who was part of the scientific team testing the formula the medieval scholars concocted, noted that vancomycin, the current treatment for MRSA, proved to be less effective a treatment in the team's experiment in a mouse chronic wound model.

While Lee was surprised by how well the recipe worked, she was not surprised that a medical text written well before the Enlightenment would prove useful. "I have always believed in people being rational. I have always believed that people in the Middle Ages were far more rational than we think," she says. While recipes involving virgins gathering water at dawn exist in medical texts from the time, they are far less common than people think, Lee points out. Most medieval recipes involve carefully selected ingredients mixed in a very logical and deliberate manner.

The research made a splash when it was published in 2015, but work has not progressed as fast as Lee would like since. The next steps would involve identifying the active ingredients in the leechbook formula for modern medical use. Rumbaugh thinks the formula's efficacy can be improved from 90 percent, bringing it closer to the accepted 99 percent effective standards for an FDA approved antibiotic. 'What we were dealing with in these first experiments was a very crude solution, yet it still did better than vancomycin," Rumbaugh says. Identifying the active ingredients and creating an optimal formulation could create a new antibiotic for hospital use that would save lives.

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