Superbugs like MRSA may have just met their match thanks to this 9th-century potion. Yes, really.
Now this is teamwork.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is one of the scariest things humans have ever created.
MRSA is what's known as a "superbug," which is basically common bacteria that has become resistant to most of our antibiotic drugs.
These bacteria cause run-of-the-mill infections to become really nasty, which can can kill people. And, even worse, they like to hang out in hospitals.
Like a lot of monsters, MRSA was made by accident.
Bacteria with drug-resistant genes survive and reproduce really, really, quickly. And the faster we sling the antibacterial drugs, the faster the bacteria evolve to resist them.
MRSA is estimated to kill 11,285 people in the U.S. each year and cause 80,461 hard-to-treat infections. And it can start with just a little pimple on the skin.
Here's the good news: MRSA may have met its match in the form of a "potion" from the ninth century.
This sounds bananas, but follow me for a sec: Freya Harrison, a microbiologist, got to talking with an Anglo-Saxon scholar, Christina Lee, about ancient remedies. Long story short, Lee ended up translating a recipe for an eye salve from a ninth-century text, Bald's Leechbook.
Harrison mixed it up and ran some tests.
The instructions go something like this:
"Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…"
— Bald's Leechbook, ninth-century text
Cropleek and garlic ... wine and bollocks gall...? What even is bullocks gall?
Bullocks gall is cow bile. (It's a pretty easy ingredient to acquire though because people who've had their gall bladders removed often take cow's bile supplements.)
Some of the other ingredients were more of a challenge, since contemporary varieties of onions and leeks are different — not to mention the wine.
Following the recipe exactly is really important. Another group tried to re-create the remedy in 2005 but created only a "loathsome slime."
But holy cow, combining those ingredients and following the recipe killed 90% of the MRSA bacteria in their study.
This ancient knowledge is great news for modern medicine. We are facing more serious threats from antibiotic-resistant bacteria all the time. (Check out this report from the Obama administration on combatting antibiotic drug resistance.)
In the meantime, here's how you can help avoid creating more superbugs:
- Only take antibiotics when you absolutely need to (never for colds or flu).
- Follow doctor's orders (finish the full dose and don't save any for "next time").
- Buy and eat antibiotic-free meat (like organic) as much as possible.