Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

By now you may have heard about the team from Nottingham that tested an Anglo-Saxon remedy for an eye-stye and found that it killed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. There's an article in New Scientist about the research here .

Some readers may remember that ten years ago our Anglo-Saxon Medicine research group at Wheaton tested the same remedy. The article is on Google Books at this URL. Full cite is: Barbara Brennessel, Michael D.C. Drout and Robyn Gravel. “A Re-Assessment of the Efficacy of Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Anglo-Saxon England 34 (2005): 183-95.

We, however, found that the compounded recipe did not kill bacteria. Although the ingredients (garlic, leeks, ox gall, wine and leached copper) were efficacious on their own, when we let them sit in the copper vessel for nine days, as the recipe says, they turned into a loathsome slime that did not inhibit bacterial growth. We used the Kirby-Bauer method of growing "bacterial lawns" of Staphyloccus aureus in petri dishes and then placing filter-paper disks impregnated with the remedy to see if they produced a zone of inhibition greater than 10 mm. They did not.

So why are our results at such variance with that of the Nottingham team?

One major possibility is that they tested the efficacy of the remedy in vivo on strips of infected mouse skin, while all of our testing was in vitro.

(For the first and probably the last time in my life, I am wishing that there had been some infected mouse skin lying around the lab).

It also may be that some small variable turned out to be important. Perhaps we had microbial contamination of the remedy where they did not (or vice versa). I'm very excited to read their paper.

And to the question that a few people have asked: if I'm upset that this group got the glory of finding something that is about as effective as Vancomycin on MRSA. I can honestly say "no", that rather, I'm excited to see follow up and improvement in human knowledge (though, honestly, that's probably because the team was led by a good friend of mine, Christina Lee -- if it had been someone I don't like....)

More importantly, this research demonstrates quite forcefully one of the major points of the 2005 paper: that there's an enormous amount of tacit information that is absolutely essential to the cultural practice but is not found in any recipe book. The things that go without saying, because any intelligent Anglo-Saxon læce would have known them, are those most likely to be lost over the centuries. It's very exciting when we can use scientific methods--or any approaches, really--to recover that lost knowledge.


John Cowan said...

I'm glad you posted today, because I saw an article last week that made me think of your projects:

From 2009, DNA May Reveal Origins of Medieval Manuscripts, reporting on work done at North Carolina State. Despite the title, the MS they were using was 15C. Have you been in touch with Tim Stinson or any of his collaborators?

Banshee said...

There's nothing like a good documented first try to inspire a better second try.

And nobody who's dealt with medieval recipes would be surprised that the first try at a redaction wouldn't necessarily work....

Unknown said...

wine has alcohol, which will kill bacteria. Whiskey is even better.

Gall has detergent action on fats, which could destroy the cell wall of germs.

Copper is a poison that can stop cell growth. However, it might also kill living cells and stop the wound from healing, and it might be absorbed into the system and cause poisoning...Heavy metals have been used for centuries for infection, the most notorious one being mercury, which has a long history of being used for syphilitic ulcers and killing the patient (see the book Shakespeare's tremor and Orwell's cough).

One heavy metal that works is silver, which we docs sometimes used before they found antibiotic creams to kill pseudomonas infection that killed burn patients.
and unlike copper, it is not very toxic if you drink it (main problem is your skin turns grey: Argyria).

That said, there are several problems.

One: Are they talking about using the medicine on top of an infected wound, or drinking it? If it is used as a "topical" medicine it could kill Staph aureus on the surface. Big deal. Lots of stuff will do that, from iodine to sugar. What kills you is when it gets into the blood stream.

Now, if you "drink" gall and alcohol and garlic, no problem. Won't do much good, but the wine will make you drunk, garlic has vitamin c to help you heal, and the gall will help you digest fat. But copper? That is a poison if you drink it.

Two: The "miracle" of penicillin and antibiotics is not that it killed germs but that it didn't kill human beings. And it could be used as a drug (injected or by mouth) to treat infections inside the whole body via the blood stream.

why? Well, you asked for it:

Penicillin and other "cidal" antibiotics worked by being eaten by the bacteria and weakening it's cell wall, so when it split into two, both new bacteria died.. animal cells don't have walls, so are not affected.

Other antibiotics work on the metabolism of bacteria, and are "static", meaning they stop it from growing/dividing, so the body's own immune system can clean it up... sometimes these have a weak affect on human cells e.g. sulfa drugs and Folate metabolism, chrloramphenicol and anemia, tetracycline and green teeth. But usually the side effects are better than the alternative, i.e. being dead.