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Inside Texas Tech: HSC Collaborators Test Possible Superbug Remedy

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
Flickr/Creative Commons

A bacterial infection that’s resistant to many antibiotics is becoming a big problem in a medical industry that’s become heavily reliant on the use of antibiotics - so much so that the antibiotics are being rendered ineffective after years of using them for a multitude of infections.

MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is deadly bacteria that’s become resistant to the typical antibiotics used to treat Staph infections, and an estimated 5,500 deaths a year in the U.S. are attributed to it.

But a new - or old, depending on how you look at it - remedy might be the cure that antibiotics can’t provide. Researchers at the University of Nottingham in England collaborated with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s Kendra Rumbaugh to test a medieval recipe on MRSA.

A centuries-old medical text, Bald’s Leechbook, contained the recipe for Bald’s Eyesalve, a solution meant for eye infections, which piqued the interest of Nottingham researchers who recreated the solution and tested it in their lab.

“There are ingredients in it, there are components that have been tested alone that are known to have some kind of antibacterial activity, such as garlic,” Rumbaugh said. “There’s extracts of garlic that have antibacterial activity, as well as the copper that’s used – the vessel – so there are little things like that led the investigators at Nottingham to think, ‘Well, maybe this could work.’”

Bald’s Eyesalve is a combination of garlic, onion or leek, mixed with wine and an unsettling ingredient called ‘oxgall’ - the bile from the stomach of a cow. The concoction sounds more like the witches’ potion in Macbeth (double, double, toil and trouble) than a modern remedy, but Nottingham researchers discovered something surprising.

“They made the solution, and they tried in the lab there at Nottingham, and it worked very well in vitro - in other words, in the test tube, against these bacteria.”

Despite the seemingly crude blend of ingredients, Rumbaugh said researchers in Nottingham were very careful in their recreation of the mixture.

“They took great pains to stage the traditional methods to make the recipe they used,” Rumbaugh said. “Wine from a vintage winery there in England, and they grew the herbs in an ancient herbal garden, and tried to keep all the methods the same. They made this solution, which I think in olden times was used to treat eye infections, but we know that those eye infections are caused by bacteria called Staphylococcus, which, today, MRSA is one of those.”

After the success against bacteria in test tubes, the Nottingham researchers sent the recipe to Rumbaugh, whose lab focuses on in vivo testing - testing on organisms. Rumbaugh said the results in her lab were remarkable as well.

“I was quite skeptical at first, but it actually worked pretty well, it worked just as well as the current gold standard, which is Vancomycin,” Rumbaugh said.

Rumbaugh’s testing and the testing of the lab in Nottingham proved the solution to be pretty effective in battling bacteria like MRSA. But it’s still unclear what part of the solution was the key to effectiveness.

“It has a number of ingredients, so we have no idea right now what the active ingredients are that are actually having the antibacterial effect,” Rumbaugh said. “So the next step is to really try to purify those, work with some biochemists, find out what those are, find out if they’re new, or if we’re talking about chemistry as we already know about.”

The use of ancient medicine in modern healthcare isn’t something new - ancient Chinese medicine, like acupuncture, has been a common practice for over 2,000 years.

“Ancient medicine has been used for a long time. I think one of the reasons this story is getting so much attention is this Anglo-Saxon medieval medicine really hasn’t gotten as much attention.”

While the remedy has been tested in test tubes in Nottingham and on mice in Lubbock, use on humans is likely far in the future, pending further research - necessary research, as the rise of MRSA continues.

“I think this is a problem that’s really come to light, especially in the last decade or so,” Rumbaugh said. “You know, everybody talks about the possibility of a ‘pre-antibiotic era’ coming again where antibiotics won’t be effective. And honestly, we see that every day. I’m over at the med school, I’m in the Department of Surgery, so we have ties with the hospital. And every day we’re seeing patients coming in with bacterial infections that we just cannot treat.”

Rumbaugh also said that antibiotics development - not a particularly profitable area for pharmaceutical companies - has stalled, contributing to the lack of available remedies for superbugs like MRSA. Despite government incentives for the development of new antibiotics, Rumbaugh said getting stuck in this age of ineffective and overused antibiotics could amount to a crisis - making the possibility of effectiveness from a humble, ancient solution all the more important.

“I think it’s definitely going to reach a point where we’re definitely going to need to start looking in new places.”

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