Ancient remedies are making a comeback

Scientists are going back to our oldest cures in the battle against increasing antibiotic resistance

Jessica Predko
14th March 2023
Image Credit: Pixabay
Whilst research funding has increased to combat antibiotic resistance, some scientists are turning back the clock to our ancestors.

In the 1990s, Ronald Sherman who was pursuing an infectious diseases fellowship, became fascinated by more traditional ways to clean-up open wounds. He later found a research paper on maggot therapy, inspiring him to reopen this avenue. At first, nobody farmed the specific type of fly to produce the maggots, so he had to capture these himself. This technique proved successful in treating his first patient, but when he submitted his work to journals, he faced many rejections. One journal even said, “Publishing the manuscript might be interpreted as an endorsement for a therapy that is ancient.”

The NHS eventually accepted the use of maggot therapy in 2004 and between 2007 – 2019, the number of NHS patients treated with maggots had increased by 47%

Despite the initial challenges, this practice has since regained popularity. The NHS eventually accepted the use of maggot therapy in 2004 and between 2007 – 2019, the number of NHS patients treated with maggots had increased by 47%.

Acute foot podiatrist, Rosalyn Thomas has been using maggot therapy for 26 years, and agrees this is the quickest way to clean-up a wound, with many patients happy to try maggot therapy. Maggots reduce the wound’s surface area and promotes faster healing compared to conventional dressings and even speeds recovery after reconstructive surgery!

Another ancient treatment is the use of leeches, which were originally used for bloodletting to balance the 4 Humours. Even though the 4 Humours theory has since been disproven, leeches are now used for a different purpose. Leeches release a certain type of chemical, which inhibits blood clotting, preventing tissue death and limb amputation. A farm in Wales now supplies 60,000 medicinal leeches to the NHS and other providers each year.

A farm in Wales now supplies 60,000 medicinal leeches to the NHS and other providers each year.

Ancient Egyptians treated wounds with honey, with medical grade honey-dressings still being used on the NHS.

In spite of traditional therapies having good evidence behind them, a Nursing Times study published in 2022 found that the “yuck factor” prevented some nurses using maggot therapy. But there has been increasing acceptance amongst other healthcare staff to try this old remedy.

AncientBiotics, formed in 2013, is a group of scientists and medievalists which analyse long-forgotten remedies. So far, they have made significant discoveries, including a 1,000 year-old Anglo-Saxon treatment for eye infections which had promising results.

There is promise for old remedies, but there are barriers. Getting a new treatment approved is time-consuming and expensive, as rigorous safety testing programmes and regulatory affairs processes are required.

In August 2022, the University of Cambridge Libraries launched a 2-year “Curious Cures” project, which will allow greater accessibility to around 8,000 medicinal medieval recipes – there is great potential that something significant could be found! In years to come, long-gone remedies may one day make a comeback.

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