Medieval Medicine and Modern Science: An Interview with Freya Harrison

Last week’s news that researchers have discovered that an Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections has performed well in tests against the MRSA bacteria has drawn media attention from around the world. The team from University of Nottingham have easily surpassed their crowdfunding goal for a summer project to expand on their research.

Petri dish - photo by Umberto Salvagnin / Flickr

We had a chance to interview Dr. Freya Harrison, from the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, who was one of the researchers involved in the discovery. We talk about this project’s collaboration, the potential of medieval medicines, and her reaction to all the attention her research has generated.

There has been a growing trend in universities to find ways for different fields of study to collaborate with each other, and your research is a perfect example of this. What are your thoughts about being able to collaborate with each other – what have the challenges and pleasures been with doing this kind of research together?

This collaboration has been wonderful – at the beginning, it was nice to occasionally step away from my routine research and discuss something totally different. As the small project mushroomed into something that looked like it was giving results and could become a longer-term project, I really enjoyed working with people form the humanities who had different ways of looking at questions, and different methods. The questions they/we were asking were in many ways more difficult to tease apart and test than the questions we usually address in microbiology, because there are more layers – for instance, in the case of the eyesalve, you have the translation of the language itself, the interpretation of what was meant by it and then on top of that the actual sourcing of ingredients and testing of the product. Universities and research councils do put a lot of emphasis on interdisciplinary work, but often I think they can “play it safe” by only supporting projects from very closely allied disciplines. The University of Nottingham took a risk by supporting a project that’s about as interdisciplinary as it’s possible to get, and I hope we’ve shown it was worth it.

The idea of looking into medieval medicine to see if it can have some applications in the modern world is fairly new – what do you think the possibilities are for this field?

For a while scientists have been testing natural compounds for antibacterial activity – this has been particularly big in China, but European and American researchers have also got in on the act. Garlic, for instance, has received a lot of attention and one of out clinical colleagues at Nottingham was even involved in a pilot study to see if garlic could help people with cystic fibrosis fight off lung infections. But I think where medieval sources are useful is that they don’t rely on single ingredients, but on mixtures of things. This is very interesting and could provide a new way of looking at plant-derived chemicals for antibiotic potential. With Bald’s eyesalve, we found that it was the combination of ingredients that was key – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So there is something going on in the way different ingredients affect bacteria, or on how they much react with one another, that gives the recipe its power. This might explain why individual plant preparations or molecules purified from a single plant often aren’t clinically useful (like the garlic and lung infection example – it looked great in the lab, but did not have a big effect when tested in humans).

I do think, though, that we have to recognise that most potential “new antibiotics” fail. Early promise in the lab might not translate into useful levels of activity when tested in humans, or the drug might have dangerous side effects, or it might be really easy for bacteria to evolve resistance. So we have to be prepared for medieval remedies to look super exciting in the early stages of research, but fall at a later hurdle. But this is true of any potential new drug – exactly the same goes for molecules designed by big pharma.

Finally, you have had a lot of media interest in your research, and your fundraising campaign has already exceeded its goal. What is your reaction to this interest?

I’ve been pretty overwhelmed, to be honest. I had no idea this would take off in the way it has – I certainly never expected to be interviewed on TV, or have Playboy write an article about our research! But it is really heartening to see how interested people are – it’s great that the public has engaged with this so much (via twitter, facebook, email…) and we’ve also had some very positive responses from clinicians. I’m incredibly grateful to the people who have donated to our crowdfunder. It’s going to help us trememdously in the short term as we’ll be able to get a summer student in to help me in the lab, but it could also have longer-term effects – we’re applying for research council funding to continue and expand the work, and the fact that ordinary people have chosen to donate to our project will hopefully demonstrate that our work has real impact and public appeal. So big thank yous are due to everyone who donated and who helped to spread the word.

Our thanks to Freya for answering our questions. You can also see a thirty-second video that she created to show what she does in a typical week as an early-career researcher in microbiology.

You can follow Freya Harrison on Twitter @friendlymicrobe

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