Ancientbiotics based on medieval formulations can fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, say experts
A recent study found an ancient formulation called Bald’s eye salve to be effective against a wide range of bacteria found in the difficult-to-treat biofilms formed in diabetic ulcer foot
Nearly 7 lakh people die of drug resistant pathogens every year. The number is estimated to rise to 1 crore by 2050. Due to rising antimicrobial resistance, there is an urgent need to find new and effective ways to tackle infectious pathogens, especially drug resistant bacteria.
Now, Dr Jessica Furner-Pardoe and her team at the University of Warwick in England claim that medieval remedies can be used to treat bacterial biofilms (thick films of bacteria) and fill the gap in antibiotic discovery.
The research, published in the open access peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, is actually an extension research that was started when Dr Christina Lee, an anglo-saxon expert at the School of English, University of Nottingham, UK, collected a team of microbiologists to recreate a 10th century potion for eye infections — called Bald’s eye salve — in the year 2015.
The term ancientbiotics is used to describe medieval formulations that were used to treat various conditions in ancient times.
The ancientbiotics project
When Dr Lee enlisted microbiologists for recreating such an old remedy, it was considered to be a one-of-a-kind project. The recipe called Bald’s eye salve was obtained from a manuscript called Bald’s Leechbook from the British Library.
The recipe called for ingredients like garlic and other alliums like onions and leeks that have to be crushed and mixed with wax and oxgall. The whole mixture is to be left in a brass or bronze vessel for nine days and nights and was to be put in a horn and applied with a feather. As per the manuscript, the recipe was originally meant to be for a wen or lump in the eye, which the scientists considered to be a stye, an infection of eye follicles caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. The bacteria causes a number of other infections and is one of the most common antibiotic resistant bacteria in modern times.
In both lab studies (in vitro) and animal models, the recipe showed astonishing results against Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Interestingly, omitting even a single ingredient or a single step in the recipe degraded the effect of the recipe or rendered it useless. Additionally, no single ingredient had a significant effect on the bacteria on its own.
The antibiotic project now has experts from various fields including immunologists, pharmacists, microbiologists, parasitologists, data analysts, medievalists and medical chemists.
The new study
Studying the Bald’s eye salve, Dr Furner-Pardoe and her team have now found that the recipe is not only effective against S aureus, but a wide range of bacteria including S epidermidis (causes infections in surgical wounds and catheters), S pyogenes (causes tonsillitis, scarlet fever, pharyngitis, etc), Stenotrophomonas maltophilia (causes respiratory infections), Acinetobacter baumanii (causes various infections in immunocompromised people) in soft tissue biofilm models.
Bacteria don’t always live as single cells on a surface, they also live in the form of biofilms of various thickness. Such biofilms are difficult to treat and need a 100-1000 times higher dose of antibiotic to be effective.
All of the abovementioned bacteria are found in diabetic foot ulcer biofilms. Diabetic foot ulcers often come back even after treatment and can require amputation of the limb. About 50 percent of those who get it die within five years.
However, just like in the original study, no single ingredient was suggested to be the reason behind the potent activity of the formulation; it was the salve as a whole that was working against the bacteria.
The study pointed out that modern medicine may be missing key aspects of the herbal remedies — since now we only use a single compound isolated from a source, say a plant. However, the herbal remedies used whole plants and evidence suggests that whole plants are better than single isolated compounds.
For more information on antibiotic use, read our article on Precautions to take with antibiotics.
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