'Ancientbiotics' Researchers Look For Old Fixes To Modern Ailments

Apr 23, 2017
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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Wine, garlic, a bit of leek or onion - sounds like the start of a great soup. It's actually a thousand-year-old recipe for Bald's eyesalve used for eye infections. And a couple of years ago, researchers found it had the potential to treat the antibiotic-resistant infection known as MRSA. There's actually a team of people scouring ancient texts in the hopes that medieval medicines could help treat modern ailments.

Erin Connelly is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania libraries, and she joins us now. So good to have you with us.

ERIN CONNELLY: Thank you very much.

NEARY: So you're part of something that's called an ancient biotics team. What exactly is that?

CONNELLY: That's right. It's actually a very interdisciplinary and now international team. There's medievalists - so I'm a medievalist - microbiologists. We had a climate historian, parasitologist. And we have - medicinal chemists, pharmacists, data scientists and mathematicians, as well.

NEARY: So I understand you're compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. Can you give me some other examples of the kinds of things you're looking at?

CONNELLY: Yes. So this database that we're currently compiling is based on a text called "The Lily Of Medicines." This text is from the 15th century. So it's a bit later than Bald's eyesalve. And within this text are thousands of ingredient names, 360 specific recipes and, just as an example, one recipe to treat a continuous wound that has become infected. Within the text, it has recognizable symptoms of infection. It recommends to boil a pomegranate in a vinegar, cut it in half and then place that upon the wound and then put more vinegar on top of it.

But what we're really interested in with this database are combinations of ingredients that occur repeatedly, specifically in combination with infection. And we hope that by examining the strength of these relationships between ingredients, we can see how they might be driven by anti-microbial properties. And they might inspire new recipes that we test in the laboratory with the aim of looking for new antibiotics.

NEARY: Now, I don't mean to be too skeptical but back in the medieval days, didn't they believe in alchemy? (Laughter) I mean, how do you trust these texts and manuscripts? And how do you trust that they will lead you to something medically useful? I mean, do you ever run into some real dead-ends - love potions and things like that?

CONNELLY: Yes, absolutely. It's a very good question. And clearly, there are remedies that we would not replicate. We no longer believe that disease is caused by an imbalance in the humors. But just like in our modern medicine, generations 500 years from now will look back at us and say, how can we trust them? Can you believe the things they used to do? But we know that there is virtue in a lot of the medicine that we do today. We're sort of looking at the past with that open-minded viewpoint. We don't want to just accept everything, so we have to use modern technologies in combination with these medieval texts.

NEARY: Erin Connelly is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania libraries. Thanks so much for being with us.

CONNELLY: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE MUSIC TROUPE SONG, "THE MEDIEVAL JUGGLERS JIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.