When we encounter what seems impossible, the solution can often be found where we might least expect it. By expanding search parameters to include information that appears paradoxical or unconventional, we can create a shift to innovation. To many, the concept of mining ancient medical texts for cures to modern diseases might seem like a waste of time. One woman’s curiosity, however, led her to do just that. When she joined forces with other open-minded researchers, they were shocked to discover that one ancient recipe was uniquely effective on the modern superbug, MRSA.
The MRSA Problem
During the past four decades, the public health impact of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has evolved from a controllable nuisance into a serious concern. Staphylococcus aureus or “staph” bacteria commonly live on our skin and in our environment, however, they can get inside the body and cause serious infections. When common antibiotics cease to kill the staph bacteria, this type of staph is referred to as MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus).
The symptoms of MRSA depend on the infection site. In the majority of cases, MRSA causes mild infections on the epidermis, like sores or boils. However, the bacteria can also lead to serious infections of surgical wounds, the bloodstream, the lungs, or the urinary tract. Allowed to develop into mature growths, MRSA infections can become deadly. Perhaps the most worrisome component of the bacteria is that it is spread by contact: touching another person or objects that have the bacteria on them.
Referred to by scientists as a modern superbug, MRSA has become a worldwide problem due to the inability of antibiotics to effectively treat the bacteria. Epidemiological studies in the United States and Canada demonstrate a 17 percent increase in reported MRSA cases over an eleven year period beginning in 1995. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 94,000 people developed their first invasive MRSA infection in the United States in 2005. Of the 94,000 infected, 19,000 of the infected individuals died.
Acknowledged by the CDC as ‘public health’s ticking time bomb,’ antibiotic resistance threatens to return our world to the time when simple infections proved fatal. A 2014 study commissioned by the U.K.’s Prime Minister reported that by the year 2050, antibiotic resistant infections are expected to kill 10 million people each year, which is more than currently die from cancer. In response to this growing crisis, President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget requested a doubling of the amount of U.S. federal funding for combating and preventing antibiotic resistance to more than $1.2 billion.
The Innovative Solution
Dr. Christina Lee had an idea. A Professor in Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, she was curious as to whether remedy’s from an ancient medical text, Bald’s Leechbook, might prove effective against modern diseases. Containing Anglo-Saxon recipes for medicines, salves, and treatments, Bald’s Leechbook is one of the earliest known medical textbooks, which is thought to originate from the 10th Century.
With her translation of Bald’s Leechbook, Dr. Lee turned to her colleague, Dr. Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the university. Together with other researchers from the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, the team decided to recreate an “eye salve” recipe from the text that listed two species of allium (garlic, leek, or onion), wine, and oxgall (bile found in the stomach of a cow). The recipe included precise instructions for the concocting of topical solution, including the use of a brass vessel for brewing and a specific type of purifying strainer. The mixture was then to be left for nine days before use.
“We recreated the recipe as faithfully as we could. The Bald gives very precise instructions for the ratio of different ingredients and for the way they should be combined before use, so we tried to follow that as closely as possible,” said microbiologist, Freya Harrison, who led the work in the lab at the School of Life Sciences. The researchers made four samples of the “eyesalve,” while also creating a control treatment. While none of the individual ingredients alone had any significant impact, the combined “eyesalve” almost totally obliterated the MRSA infection. Approximately one bacterial cell in a thousand survived in mice wounds.
One member of the team, Dr. Steve Diggle, stated, “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 kills cells in the (MRSA) biofilms. I was genuinely amazed.” For while modern antibiotics can treat early infections, MRSA’s impenetrable reputation comes from the biofilm it builds around mature infection sites which antibiotics cannot breech. Thus, Bald’s “eyesalve” demonstrated the ability to do what antibiotics could not. The U.S. National Institute for Health (NIH) reports that biofilms are implicated in up to 80 percent of all chronic and recurring infections.
Biofilms serves as shields that protect bacteria from attacking antibiotics and other treatments. In addition, Biofilms allow bacteria to stick to medical implants, tissues, and other surfaces.
The University of Nottingham’s team then turned to Dr. Kendra Rumbaugh, Associate Professor at Texas Tech University, to see if their research could be replicated. Dr. Rumbaugh carried out in vivo testing of the Bald’s remedy on MRSA infected skin wounds in mice at Texas Tech and reported, “this ‘ancient remedy’ performed as good if not better than the conventional antibiotics we used.”
Dr. Christina Lee explained, “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.”
Freemasonry’s Approach to Critical Thinking
Freemasonry rejects dogma, teaching individuals to think for themselves. Merriam-Webster defines dogma as “a belief that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted.” Since the germ theory of disease was not really fully developed until the 1870s, what new information could be gained from a medical text from the 10th century? While dogmatic scientific thinking may have precluded research into text such as Bald’s Leechbook, the team of researchers from the University of Nottingham in England and Texas Tech University stepped outside the realm of conventional sources for scientific study. Their efforts provided a needed catalyst in solving the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria, such as MRSA.