AncientBiotics from Leechbooks

By Steven Foster |

Last week’s annual meeting of the Society for General Microbiology held in Birmingham England, announced some really exciting new research or the Society has a really good publicist. Papers presented at the meeting made worldwide news. One paper from researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University, showed that date syrup a common sweetener in the Middle East, has antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli (the ubiquitous “E. coli”), that was as good as or better than honey as an antibiotic. Okay, like I said the Society has a great publicist. Researchers from the University of York reported on the discovery of a unique set of enzymes that help the bacterium Staphylococcus hominis create compounds called thioalcohols—revealing the chemical key to turning sweat into body odor! Good work publicist!

The study that got the most air, print, and internet play was from researchers at the University of Nottingham who reported that a complex formula teased from a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the collection of the British Museum—Bald’s Leechbook—was surprisingly effective against methicillin-resistant Staphylococus aureus, better known as MRSA.

GarlicYou don’t want a spacesuit encased physician to walk into your hospital room  to inform you that you have MRSA and that they will have to move you to the hospital’s Ebola wing. . . The irony of this misplaced humor is that eight years ago, my father went to visit my older brother in a hospital after surgery, and just from visiting, my dad got a staph infection that is still with him now. And today, 10 April 2015, I write these words as I sit at my step son’s hospital bed after he had an operation yesterday. As he snores softly while firmly in the embrace of Morphius, the words repeat in my head, “wash your hands often.”

Likely in rural England 1,000 years ago, human immune systems were much more active than today, stimulated by what was undoubtedly a microbial-rich domestic environment. The 9th century recipe studied by the University of Nottingham scientists included two types of onion relatives, combined with wine and oxgall.

Dr. Christina Lee, Associate Professor in Viking Studies and member of the University’s Institute for Medieval Research translated the recipe, the original of which was reportedly a topical eye salve formula. The recipe not only calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach), it also describes a very specific method of making the preparation in a brass vessel, straining it then allowing the mixture to cure for nine days before use. See 30 March  2015 Press Release from the University of Nottingham. A video with interviews with the researchers is embedded in the press release.

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. Microbiologists at the University of Nottingham then recreated and tested the concoction against MRSA, and were astounded to find a more than 90% effective rate against the bacterium.

Dr Lee (quoted in the Press Release linked above) 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.

“Medieval leech books and herbaria contain many remedies designed to treat what are clearly bacterial infections (weeping wounds/sores, eye and throat infections, skin conditions such as erysipelas, leprosy and chest infections). Given that these remedies were developed well before the modern understanding of germ theory, this poses two questions: How systematic was the development of these remedies? And how effective were these remedies against the likely causative species of bacteria? Answering these questions will greatly improve our understanding of medieval scholarship and medical empiricism, and may reveal new ways of treating serious bacterial infections that continue to cause illness and death.”

Dr Freya Harrison, a University of Nottingham microbiologist led the work in the laboratory with Dr Steve Diggle and Research Associate Dr Aled Roberts. She presented the findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology  on Monday 30th March 2015 in Birmingham, England.

According to the press release, Dr Harrison commented: “We thought that Bald’s eyesalve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab – copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues.  But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.  We tested it in difficult conditions too; we let our artificial ‘infections’ grow into dense, mature populations called ‘biofilms’, where the individual cells bunch together and make a sticky coating that makes it hard for antibiotics to reach them.  But unlike many modern antibiotics, Bald’s eye salve has the power to breach these defences.”

Denied further funding for the project by a UK government agency, the “AncientBiotics Project” leader Dr. Freya Harrison is using  Crowdfunder.co.uk page to request small contributions to continue the research.

The short video clip accompanying the University of Nottingham press release very briefly mentions the 1865 (Volume 2) of T. O. Cockayne’s translations  from  Bald’s Leechbook (and others). You can access the three volumes (1864, 1865, & 1866, respectively) by clicking on the links below:

Cockayne, T. O., et al. (1864). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Vol. 1. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

Cockayne, T. O., et al. (1865). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England: Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Vol. 2. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

Cockayne, T. O., et al. (1866). Leechdoms, wortcunning, and starcraft of early England: Being a collection of documents, for the most part never before printed, illustrating the history of science in this country before the Norman conquest. Vol. 3. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

One element missing from most news reports on the AncientBiotics Project is the fact that this type of multidisciplinary research called “text mining” is relatively new. Historians or linguists search historic manuscripts or antiquarian books for targeted words or concepts, then field and laboratory researchers from various disciplines use the data to design experiments. The Internet increases text mining exponentially, since once doesn’t have to be in the physical presence of a manuscript to review it, since many records are now digitized and readily accessible on-line. Similar research is being quietly conducted worldwide.

We all know that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, but he gets credit for it. Why? It is because the printing press arrived in Europe in 1440, developed by the German goldsmith, Gutenberg. The Chinese had developed movable type and printing processes 600 years earlier. The printing press allowed news to travel faster. The 1493 letter of Christopher Columbus to his sponsors describing his discoveries was immediately published in several languages and distributed throughout Europe. One can image him bowing before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and with a wink and smile while saying, “It’s all in the P.R.”

Today “P.R.” is a mouse click away.

Cold-Blooded Investigator Targets Herbal DNA

| By Steven Foster

Ginkgo leaf; Ginkgo biloba; Ginkgo leaf close-ups horizontal (landscape) aspectTuesday February 3, 2015, the New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, issued a press release on an action taken the previous day in which his office delivered “cease and desist” letters to four major retails including GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart alleging that they were selling herbal dietary supplements that did not contain the plant materials listed on the product labels. The herbs included Echinacea, Garlic, Ginseng, St. John’s Wort, and Saw Palmetto. According to the Attorney General’s press release 79% of the products tested, either did not contain the plant material claimed on the label or contained other plant materials not listed on the label. All of the products were “store brands,” made by contract manufacturers.

“This investigation makes one thing abundantly clear: the old adage ‘buyer beware’ may be especially true for consumers of herbal supplements,” said Attorney General Schneiderman. “The DNA test results seem to confirm long-standing questions about the herbal supplement industry. Mislabeling, contamination, and false advertising are illegal.” “Seem” is the operative word here.

Schneiderman has apparently been watching too many episodes of CSI “city du jour” in which the DNA always solves the crime. DNA analysis for plants is great for botanicals or plant specimens in which intact DNA still exist, but if you are testing an extracted plant ingredient—PRESTO—the DNA except in rare cases no  longer exists!

Every qualified, experienced plant analytical laboratory that authenticates botanicals day-in-and-day-out, knows that DNA alone is unreliable for testing plant extracts. Instead validated chemical analytical methods along with other validated lab methods are used. See link at the end of this article to see the American Herbal Pharmacopeia’s 54-page response to Attorney General Schneiderman which includes the appropriate lab methods to i.d. of the plant extracts in question.

A retired plant scientist friend mused, “if DNA testing is required for validating plant ingredients claimed to be in any product, the supermarket shelves would be empty.” If Schneiderman had applied the same DNA method to the brown liquid in the cup of coffee he might have drunk before his news conference, the test would have likely shown that his cup of coffee contained no detectable DNA of the coffee plant!

This is a case in which a public official, under the guise of science, has made allegations without confirming the validity of the science. Curiously, no plant genomic scientists I know had heard of the lab or researcher who did the testing! Turns out they hired a DNA lab specializing in reptile and dinosaur identification! I suppose that New York Attorney General Eric T.  Schneiderman decided to hire this lab after he had heard that the lab was run by “cold-blooded scientific investigators.”

A version of this story was published in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper in the Nature of Eureka column on 11 February 2015.

See response to the New York AG from Roy Upton, Founder and Executive Director of The American Herbal Pharmacopeia, which supplies a rational response to an irrational action.

This is a continuing story.