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1,000-year-old eye salve recipe shows antibiotic activity

Colin Garner ANTRUK announcements, Learn more

Antibiotic Research UK is a charity focussed on finding new treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections. We are always on the lookout for research that might help save modern medicine. We were intrigued to learn of research published in July 2020 by a team of University of Warwick scientists. The project was led by Dr Jessica Furner-Pardoe, whose research focusses on finding old yet effective treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. These historic treatments are now referred to as ‘ancientbiotics’.

Professor Furner-Pardoe and her colleagues have discovered a promising candidate for further study as a possible new treatment for drug-resistant infections. ‘Bald’s Eye Salve’, as the potion is called, shows antibacterial activity. Its use also causes relatively little damage to human cells in the process.

Bald’s Eye Salve

The salve was discovered in a 10th century Anglo-Saxon leechbook. It is made with onion, garlic, wine and bile salts (a digestive aid). This ancientbiotic was used 1,000 years ago to treat conditions that, from the text, sound like eye infections. Each of the individual ingredients has a known – yet limited – degree of antibacterial activity. But, when combined together as per the instructions for making the eye salve they have been shown to have a great deal of potential as a treatment for biofilm infections.

Biofilm infections are those caused by types of bacteria that create a protective layer for themselves. Called a biofilm, this layer protects them from the effects of medicines such as antibiotics. Diabetic foot ulcers are often caused by biofilm-forming bacteria, and can lead to amputation or sepsis. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is another biofilm-producing bacteria, responsible for around 800 infections a year in the UK; these infections are very difficult to treat and often result in death. Bacteria that secrete these protective layers often require hundreds of times the concentration of antibiotics to clear than the same bacteria growing without one. Most antibiotics have side effects that render this level of treatment impossible. Ancientbiotics, however, proved effective against MRSA in vitro (in a laboratory environment) and in mice, even where current last-line antibiotics (vancomycin) did not.

What’s next for Bald’s eye salve?

The team behind this study now plan to explore how the eye salve kills S. aureus. This will allow them to better understand how the combination of ingredients work together. They are also continuing their work exploring medieval texts for other such ancientbiotics.

Why is this important?

Finding potential new treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections is of increasing importance as the threat of such illnesses continues to rise. The World Health Organisation has predicted 10 million deaths a year from antibiotic-resistant infections by 2050 . And more specifically, the researchers in this study describe the cost of biofilm-related infections to the NHS as around £1 billion each year.

New antibiotics take many, many years (as well as billions of pounds) to develop. A resistance to each new drug often takes just a few years to arise in most cases. This means creating new antibiotics might not be the best way to tackle the issue. Alternatives, such as this salve and other ancientbiotics, are being discovered and tested right now. We hope they can help us keep our existing antibiotic treatments for only the most difficult to treat cases of infection.

What is Antibiotic Research UK doing?

Research into alternatives to antibiotics is a core part of the charity’s work, and we’re working on a number of antibiotic resistance breakers.

Testing is ongoing a non-antibiotic triple therapy for the treatment of Travellers Diarrhoea (TD) with collaborators in the UK and China. TD affects 30-70% of travellers each year, which amounts to millions of people, so finding an alternative therapy for this illness could save the use of a huge volume of antibiotics, helping to save these precious medicines for the people who need them most.

It is also of note that the chair Professor Chris Dowson and Professor David Roper, key members of our Science Committee, hail from  Warwick University.

How you can help

Fundraising efforts have been hampered by COVID-19, yet research is showing many links between the current health crisis and the impending threat of increased antibiotic resistance. We are the UK’s leading charity focussed on saving modern medicine and can’t do it alone. Please make a donation today to help ensure Antibiotic Research UK can continue our work.

Can’t donate? Try organising a COVID-19 lockdown fundraising event! Together, we can find new treatments to tackle what might be the next pandemic.