April 8, 2015

MRSA meets its medieval match

by Bonnie Denmark

In his 1945 Nobel Prize speech, Alexander Fleming warned that misusing antibiotics would lead to resistance in microbes. Fast forward 70 years and zoom in on MRSA: It’s contagious, it’s dangerous, and it resists the antibiotics that once successfully treated it, posing a serious threat to public health. However, on March 30, researchers at the University of Nottingham (UK) announced the discovery of an effective weapon against this superbug: A 1,000-year-old Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections.

MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is a growing concern for healthcare professionals around the world, with rising outbreaks in hospitals, nursing homes, athletic settings, military barracks, prisons, homeless shelters, and schools (WebMD). Causing 23,000 deaths every year in the US alone (CDC, 2013), this strain of staph prompted the National Action Plan to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria unveiled by the Obama administration on March 27.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), shown in pink. Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

University of Nottingham researchers described their breakthrough, which stemmed from an unusual collaboration and an even more unusual source. Working with a medieval history expert, molecular microbiologists re-created a 9th century healing potion found in Bald’s Leechbook, one of the earliest known medical textbooks. Anglo-Saxon expert Christina Lee translated a recipe for “eye salve,” which calls for:

…goat’s gall and dumbledores honey of all equal quantities. If eyes be tearful add to sweetened wine ashes of harts horn. Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this into a brazen vessel, let it stand nine days…

A facsimile page from Bald’s Leechbook, compiled in the 9th century. Only one manuscript survives (British Library Royal MS 12 D XVII). Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The researchers reproduced the recipe as faithfully as they could, even using wine from a vineyard that has been around for 900 years. Some ingredients were easily understood, but others took guesswork since the recipe was written in Old English, a language no longer spoken.

One thing that makes MRSA so hard to treat is that it forms a biofilm, a protective jelly-like coating that is not readily penetrated by antibiotics. The Nottingham researchers grew a biofilm to mimic a soft tissue MRSA infection and tested the recipe. The results? According to lead researcher Freya Harrison, “We were going from a mature established population of a few billion cells all stuck together in this highly protective biofilm coat to really just a few thousand cells left alive, so this is a massive, massive killing ability.”

MRSA biofilm. Photo Credit: Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC/P), Public Health Image Library, Image #7484

The real test would be if the experiment could be repeated with the same results. Replication is a keystone of scientific research, ensuring reliable and unbiased results. The Nottingham team made four independent batches of the medicine with fresh ingredients, with success every time! Their results were further backed up by a US collaborator in tests on mice. (For more on the importance of replication in the process of science, see our module Scientists and the Scientific Community.)

What makes the medicine work? The mixture contains several ingredients with known infection-fighting properties, but none of the ingredients in isolation is enough to wipe out MRSA. Perhaps when mixed together, the bacteria cells are attacked on several fronts and can’t resist the concerted assault. Or maybe a chemical reaction produces a new type of molecule with infection-fighting superpowers. Researchers aren’t sure what makes the concoction so effective but are eager to investigate further.

The Middle Ages are often seen as the unenlightened Dark Ages, but modern-day researchers responded to this medieval science experiment with comments like “phenomenal,” ”dumbfounded,” and “beyond my wildest dreams.” In this case, the medieval past certainly shows promise in addressing a vexing 21st century public health problem.



Read the full press release and see video: University of Nottingham researchers describe the “The AncientBiotics Project.”

Read more about MRSA on WebMD.

Read Alexander Fleming’s warning about antibiotic resistance in his Nobel lecture, delivered December 11, 1945.

Written by

Bonnie Denmark holds an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL, and Spanish. She has devoted her professional life to educational and accessibility issues as a computational linguist, multimedia curriculum developer, educator, and writer. She has also worked nationally and internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant, and teacher trainer. Bonnie joined the Visionlearning team as a literacy specialist in 2011, assisting the project by developing comprehension aids for science modules and creating other STEM learning materials.

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