The Scientist: Disease Warrior by day, Viking Warrior by night
It’s not often that a woman who dresses up as a Viking Warrior to reenact ancient battles on weekends teams up with a mild-mannered historian to solve one of our great medical problems.
Meet Freya Harrison, PhD, Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences – by day – warrior princess by night.
Of course, if you’re going to act the part of Viking Warrior it only makes sense that you learn to speak the language – Anglo-Saxon – which no one has much bothered to do since about 1066. Which is not a problem, you simply join the University of Nottingham Anglo-Saxon book reading club! And that’s where Ms. Harrison ran into history professor of Viking Studies, Christina Lee.
Coincidentally, Professor Lee had her own agenda on the boil: Her belief that the Medieval Era, the so-called Dark Ages, unfairly suffers a bad rap. Her theory is that it was actually a very rational era and one way to prove that would be to look at how they did scientific experiments.
The Historian: The Dark Ages had a Renaissance quality to them and she needed a scientist to help her prove it
It just so happened that she was in possession of those Medieval Era experiments by way of one of the earliest known medical textbooks ever published, the 9th C Bald’s Leechbook, which Christina had been studying for years. Full of “recipes” for different ailments, she was interested in the one for a lump on the eye which she translated to mean a stye, which her research told her was usually caused by a staph bacteria, often drug resistant ones called MRSA.
Wouldn’t it be a great idea, Christina thought, if she could find someone willing to carry out this 1,000 year old experiment to see if it actually worked – to see if the ancient recipe could function as an antibiotic and kill today’s MRSA. And lo and behold in walks the Viking Warrior who immediately said yes to Christina’s proposed scientific adventure!
The age-old potion called for a precise ratio of garlic + onion or leek + wine + cow bile. “Pound them well together,” strain through a cloth, let stand for 9 days. No, they didn’t have to mash-up a cow; they managed to find the animal bile at a chemist shop. And for the wine, they got it from a vineyard that had been in the area since the 9th C!
Now for the first big test. Throw the recipe into a test tube full of bacteria, let stand for 24 hours, check to see if there’s any effect. There were sleepless nights leading up to that first morning when they looked to see if any of the germ cells were still alive: What Freya Harrison discovered was that the recipe had “a massive, massive killing ability. When we got the first results,” she said, “We were just absolutely dumbfounded. We did not see this coming at all.”
But success in the test tube is one thing, the trick is to make it work in real-life MRSA-infected wounds. So Harrison contacted colleague Dr. Kendra Rumbaugh who was already doing work on MRSA-infected skin wounds in mice at Texas Tech University in the United States.
After using Harrison’s recipe on the MRSA-mice, Dr Rumbaugh reports: “We know that MRSA-infected wounds are exceptionally difficult to treat in people and in mouse models. We have not tested a single antibiotic or experimental therapeutic that is completely effective; however, this ‘ancient remedy’ performed as good if not better than the conventional antibiotics we used.” (My emphasis)
The results matter because antibiotic resistant infections are predicted to cause more deaths than cancer by the year 2050. MRSA, in particular, is particularly deadly (p.77), responsible for about half of all deaths in the U.S. caused by germs resistant to our dwindling supply of antibiotics.
Initially, this was thought to be one of those Friday afternoon just-before-you-head-out-to-the-local-pub kind of experiment. But that’s not at all how it turned out. Dr. Freya Harrison: “The potential of this to work on people as an antibiotic is just beyond my wildest dreams to be honest.”