ISO a new cure: time to hit the oldest books?


The library at Jesus College, University of Oxford. Who knows what cures lurk in these old books?

I’ve been writing about how technology informed by ecology can help save both food and medicine, leading us to better ways to fend of pest and pathogen.  But today was a twofer for ancient remedies. One throwback garnered a Nobel for Medicine or Physiology for Youyou Tu who, after “investigating thousands” of chemicals in search of an effective malaria treatment found the answer in a couple millennia-old Handbook for Prescriptions and Emergencies written by Ge Hong (described in Tu’s 2011 Nature article The discovery of arteminsin (qinghausu) and gifts from Chinese medicine.)  Tu and colleagues had been extracting chemicals from various herbs by heating them up, a chem-lab standard (what’s a chemistry lab without gas spigots or Bunsen burners?). The results were less than rousing. But, writes Tu, the extract of artemesia should have worked more reliably. When the team turned to the literature, ancient literature, they found Hong’s writings which advised soaking Artemeisia annua in water, wringing it out and downing the juice. “Indeed,” wrote Tu, “we obtained much better activity after switching to a lower-temperature procedure.” A bit of an understatement. Tu’s laboratory went on to test the extract on themselves (for human safety of course) and eventually isolate the active ingredient.

While not quite Nobel winning, another story found while Googling around for information on MRSA, relates how an ancient Anglo-Saxon cure for eye infection beats back our modern incredibly antibiotic resistant MRSA. Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon scholar at the University of Nottingham (yes, an English major) who discovered and translated the ancient recipe, like Tu, believes in the gifts of the ancients. The translated recipe (… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…) produced an incredibly effective salve. Now the work begins as they move on to identifying active ingredients (most likely a mixture of bacterial busting chemicals.)

I don’t think I’d return to days of arsenic and mercury – also ancient treatments for whatever ails you – or to the days before industrial antibiotics and chemotherapy but, Nature far surpasses us when it comes to chemical production and innovation (by way of evolution) and the ancients more in touch with Nature’s medicine than we are today.  Perhaps it’s time to pick up an old, old book. Or begin reading more closely the oldest of all, Nature.

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