By Lori Bystrom, PhD
Many of us look forward to a future of convenience with magical gadgets and miracle cures, perhaps something akin to the lifestyle of the cartoon characters on The Jetsons. The show’s optimistic portrayal of the future depicts our fascination with modern technology – an interest that stems not only from our desire for new and improved modes of transportation and communication, but also from our desire for new and better medicine.
The future of medicine may seem promising, but understanding the past may be vital for making medical dreams come true. Just as the stone-age characters from The Flinstones are capable of helping the futuristic characters of The Jetsons fix their time machine (see The Jetsons Meet The Flinstones clip from 1:00 to 1:17), so too can our long-departed ancestors help us in ways that will benefit us in the future (perhaps in less barbaric ways than hitting something with a club). In other words, medical advancements, although conventionally based on research using modern technology, can also be derived from medical information of the ancient past.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the recent discovery of a plant-based eye infection remedy found in a 1,000 year old medical text. This finding was recently presented at the British Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference by researchers at the University of Nottingham in England and Texas Tech University in the United States. They found that the 9th century Anglo-Saxon book, known as Bald’s Leechbook, contained a remedy for an eye infection that consisted of a mixture of garlic, onion or leeks, wine, and bile (from cow’s stomach) that was boiled and fermented in a brass vessel. Amazingly, the recreation of this ancient remedy proved to be effective against the resilient methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), both in vitro and on wounds. In fact, it was found to be more effective than one of the antibiotics (vancomycin) currently used to treat the modern day superbug (see this article). Although clinical trials need to be conducted to confirm the beneficial effects of this medicinal preparation, this is an extraordinary start for a potential drug.
Should we be surprised that some of these ancient remedies actually have therapeutic value? Back in the day, when clinical trials did not exist and ethical practices were not necessarily enforced, there was probably a great deal of trial and error as people tried medicines on each other. The only medicines that were recorded were probably those that worked, while ineffective treatments may or may not have been noted. Interestingly, some of the traditional medicines may have been inspired by how animals treated their ailments (an area of study known as zoopharmacognosy). There also may have been minimal repercussions for failed treatments (no lawsuits?), and therefore maybe more freedom for finding medical cures. Moreover, if a treatment was found to be effective nobody probably had to wait for approval from any organization such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Regardless of what happened in the past, it is apparent there are valuable lessons we can learn from our ancestors. For instance, the ancient practice of fecal transplantation is now gaining acceptance in modern medicine. As far back as the 4th century, Ge Hong, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, used fecal material to treat his patients with food poisoning or severe diarrhea. Just recently, the FDA approved the use of fecal transplants for specific gastrointestinal problems. The use of leeches for the treatment of venous congestion, among other ailments, is another example of modern medicine embracing old technology (see this article). There are numerous conventional medications that also have roots in the distant past (e.g. aspirin). Any book on the history of medicine will provide more information on this subject matter.
All of these examples suggest that medical research is limited if it turns a blind eye to the past. Moreover, the medical community needs to address the polar opposite views on traditional/natural medicines: those that think all natural products/traditional remedies are safe and those that think all traditional medicines/natural therapies are inherently bad. What it really comes down to is what is effective and not what resonates better to different patients or doctors. More scientific research needs to assess whether these treatments are safe and effective, while identifying those that may be snake oil. The journalist and information designer, David McCandless, beautifully illustrates some of these differences on his website.
Modern medicine should keep an open mind while researchers continue to investigate ancient remedies and screen out the good from the bad. It is appropriate that a small division of the National Institute of Health, known formerly as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, was renamed as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Unconventional or traditional medicines that are effective are not the ‘alternative’, but perhaps the best option or one that can be integrated with other medical treatments.
As we move forward in medicine, we might want to keep digging up the past so we are prepared to combat new diseases and improve current treatments. The future of medicine may just need, as George Jetson puts it nicely, “a little stone-age technology.”