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1,000-Year-Old Onion and Garlic: A Medieval Remedy for Modern Day Superbugs


Image credit: A facsimile of a page from Bald’s Leechbook via Wikimedia

An interdisciplinary team of experts and microbiologists from England has found an approach to treatment against modern antibiotic-resistant superbugs in an impossible place: a leatherbound volume known as Bald’s Leechbook which is now one thousand years old. At present, this Old English manuscript is well-kept at the British Library and is regarded as one of the earliest medical textbooks known so far.

To be used for treatment of eye infections, such centuries-old recipe contains two kinds of Allium (garlic and leek or onion), wine, and oxgall, the bile from a cow’s stomach. The instructions, which have been translated by Christina Lee from University of Nottingham, are amazingly specific—at first, it needs to use a brass vessel for brewing, then it should be purified via a special straining technique to eventually get the mixture that must be left for nine days before application.

According to Freya Harrison of Nottingham, they thought that Bald’s eye salve could demonstrate a light involvement of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been identified with some effect on bacteria in the lab by other researchers. It is known that copper and bile salts are effective in killing bacteria, and plants in the garlic family could generate chemicals which would interfere with the microbe’s ability to harm infected tissue. However, as explained by Harrison, they were pretty impressed that the combination of ingredients could be so effective.

In order to reproduce this ancient solution, firstly the AncientBiotics team carefully chopped and crushed certain amount of garlic and either onion or leek in a mortar for two minutes, and then combined equal parts of such ingredients with 25 milliliters of English wine from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury, finally they added bovine salts that had been dissolved in distilled water into the mixture, which was kept cold at 4 degrees Celsius for nine days. In the end, they created four separate batches and a control solution without any vegetable compounds.

They tested the potion on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or MRSA) cultures in both synthetic wounds which were produced by growing bacteria in collagen and in the wounds of infected mice, because MRSA was believed to be one of the most notorious antibiotic-resistant microbes to the mankind at the moment. These cells cluster together to produce a sticky coating known as biofilm, making it difficult for antibiotics to reach them.

Although none of the individual ingredients by themselves appeared to be effective, the eye salve was capable of killing up to ninety percent of the MRSA. Such results were strongly supported by mouse tests made by Kendra Rumbaugh and his team from Texas Tech in the United States. As Rumbaugh said, the performance of this ancient remedy performed was as effective as the conventional antibiotics currently used.

As they were not certain about the dosage, so the researchers made efforts to dilute the eye salve to see what would occur. While the diluted salve failed to kill the bacteria, it was capable of interfering with their cell-to-cell communication, namely quorum sensing. To block this behavior might be another approach to infection treatment.

The findings will be released at the annual conference of Society for General Microbiology to be held in Birmingham, U.K.