Could medieval medicine provide new antibiotics to treat deadly modern infections?

Project aim

Help us find out if microbiologists can learn from history to tackle deadly superbugs.

 

About the project

Could medieval medicine help us solve the problems posed by deadly modern pathogens?

Bacterial infections are a major threat to human health, and we are running out of antibiotics to treat them. Bacteria have evolved resistance to many drugs in our medical armoury, and there are increasingly few new antibiotics in development. We are searching for new antimicrobial treatments in the medical books left behind by medieval and pre-modern doctors: these have not been studied in detail, and it is possible that they contain long-forgotten ways of curing infection that we could develop for use in the modern clinic.

Who are we?

We are a team of historians and microbiologists from the University of Nottingham. We are conducting focused searches of medieval and early modern medical books to identify remedies that were designed to treat bacterial infection. We can identify remedies with ingredients that we think will have some antibacterial activity, make them according to the original instructions and then test them against important disease-causing bacteria in laboratory models of infection.

What have we done so far?

We have made and tested a 1,000-year-old remedy for bacterial infection that we found in an Anglo-Saxon medical text or “leechbook.” It contains several everyday ingredients that are thought to have some antibacterial activity – like garlic, onions and copper. We have shown that this remedy has a remarkable ability to kill the dangerous bacterial pathogen Staphylococcus aureus (including the antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ strain known as MRSA). The anti-bacterial activity is due to the combination of ingredients used in the recipe, not just a single active compound: this means that it may be harder for the bacterium to develop resistance to the recipe, as it would need to neutralise several lines of attack at the same time.

 

To continue exploring the clinical potential of our Anglo-Saxon antibiotic, we need an extra pair of hands in the lab.

 

Why is this work important?

S. aureus is a prime example of a dangerous and hard-to-treat pathogen. It is responsible for infections ranging from mild skin and eye infections to life-threatening conditions such as diabetic ulcers, blood poisoning, heart infections and toxic shock syndrome. S. aureus is responsible for 1% of all hospital admissions, leading to an estimated cost of $9.5bn per year in the USA alone. S. aureus infections can be difficult to treat because many strains (like MRSA) are resistant to antibiotics.

 

How will the funds be used?

We would like to raise £1,000 so we can offer a paid summer project to an undergraduate student, or to someone who has just finished their degree. They will undertake further testing of our Anglo-Saxon antibiotic and will learn key microbiological techniques, which will help them find employment or a graduate studentship. They will help us to

  • Test the recipe against other species of bacteria that cause hard-to-treat infections
  • Test the recipe against bacteria isolated from real infections
  • Elucidate exactly how the recipe damages bacterial cells

Our budget is as follows:

  • Student stipend to cover living expenses during the project: £125 per week for 6 weeks = £750
  • Recipe ingredients, bacterial growth media and laboratory consumables (petri dishes etc.) £250

Offering a stipend will allow us to select from a pool of applicants to find a student who has the right level of experience in the lab, and who will really benefit from the research experience we can offer them.

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