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Cow Bile Potion Kills Superbug

02 April 2015

UK - A potion recipe from a medieval manuscript containing cow bile has anti-bacterial properties, according to researchers from the University of Nottingham.

The potion recipe originates from a copy of the 10th century Leechbook in the British Library. The Leechbook is widely thought of as one of the earliest known medical textbooks and contains Anglo-Saxon medical advice and recipes for medicines, salves and treatments.

The solution has had remarkable effects on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which is one of the most antibiotic-resistant bugs costing modern health services billions.

Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the School of English enlisted the help of microbiologists from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences to see if the potion really worked as an antibacterial remedy.

Dr Lee translated the recipe from a transcript of the original Old English manuscript.

Early results on the 'potion', tested in vitro at Nottingham and backed up by mouse model tests at a university in the United States, are, in the words of the US collaborator, “astonishing”.

The team now has good, replicated data showing that Bald’s eye salve kills up to 90 per cent of MRSA bacteria in ‘in vivo’ wound biopsies from mouse models.

They believe the bactericidal effect of the recipe is not due to a single ingredient but the combination used and brewing methods/container material used. Further research is planned to investigate how and why this works.

The recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach). It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, a straining to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.

The scientists at Nottingham made four separate batches of the remedy using fresh ingredients each time, as well as a control treatment using the same quantity of distilled water and brass sheet to mimic the brewing container but without the vegetable compounds.

The remedy was tested on cultures of the commonly found and hard to treat bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, in both synthetic wounds and in infected wounds in mice.

None of the individual ingredients alone had any measurable effect, but when combined according to the recipe the Staphylococcus populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.

Dr Lee said: “We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab. 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 Steve Diggle, who worked on the laboratory aspect of the project, added: “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 S. aureus biofilms, I was genuinely amazed.

"Biofilms are naturally antibiotic resistant and difficult to treat so this was a great result.

"The fact that it works on an organism that it was apparently designed to treat (an infection of a stye in the eye) suggests that people were doing carefully planned experiments long before the scientific method was developed.”

US collaborator Dr Rumbaugh said: “We know that MRSA infected wounds are exceptionally difficult to treat in people and in mouse models.

"We have not tested a single antibiotic or experimental therapeutic that is completely effective; however, this ‘ancient remedy’ performed as good if not better than the conventional antibiotics we used.”

The group are now seeking more funding to continue work on this project, and hope that such work can help alleviate the pressing need for new anti-bacterial medicines.

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