Medieval Medicine May Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

A Medieval Anglo-Saxon medical book in the British Library may hold the key to finding new ways to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Scientists at England's University of Warwick have found that a medical recipe from the ancient Bald's Leechbook is effective against five strains of bacteria that cause biofilm infections.

Biofilms are a mechanism by which bacteria are able to defend themselves against attack, so it's important to discover a way to counter this bacterial defence system in the ongoing battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One tactic of this effort is to look at natural or historical cures that might hold the key to a new weapon in the pharmacological arsenal.


Although much of the Old English text in Bald's Leechbook would only be of interest to antiquarians, one of its recipes, called "Bald's eyesalve," may have modern applications. At a casual glance, Bald's Leechbook shouldn't be anything more than an interesting relic from the history of medicine. Also known as Medicinale Anglicum, it is estimated to have compiled around the time of Alfred the Great in the ninth century and is regarded as one of the oldest known medical textbooks. Today, only one leather-bound manuscript survives and it's tucked away in the British Library.


Remarkably, Bald's eyesalve is a simple mixture of onion, garlic, wine, and bile salts that the researchers have discovered is effective against various strains of bacteria, yet causes only a low level of damage to human cells. According to the research published by the team at University of Warwick, it isn't the individual ingredients that have this antibiotic effect, but their combined action.


The study says: "Most antibiotics that we use today are derived from natural compounds, but our work highlights the need to explore not only single compounds but mixtures of natural products for treating biofilm infections. We think that future discovery of antibiotics from natural products could be enhanced by studying combinations of ingredients, rather than single plants or compounds."

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