New isn’t always better: Old medicinal tricks useful in the modern age

With all of the emphasis on development of new drugs and medical techniques, it seems that the momentum is always pushing forward. Although the practice of medicine from centuries past seems ancient, beyond outdated, and at most, useless considering high mortality rates and short lifespans, some of these old techniques are proving to be valid, even breakthrough options when modern science fails.

Sharper than a knife

Blades made from obsidian (volcanic glass) were used in questionable surgical procedures in the Stone Age. However, some doctors recognize that while the surgeries themselves were often unnecessary and misguided, the tools used are still the best that can be found. When properly cut, obsidian has a continuous edge cleaner than steel. Because steel scalpels can have a rough cutting edge on a microscopic level, they can cause additional tissue damage.

Dr. Lee Green, a professor at the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, says that the reduction of tissue damage by using obsidian blades during procedures allows cuts to heal faster with less scarring. While helping documentarians produce a film on ancient surgical technology, he compared the use of steel and obsidian scalpels by making incisions in cultured-skin burn dressing and placing them under a microscope. Dr. Green said that the results were evident, to the point where “the steel scalpel incision looked like it had been made by a chainsaw.”

Although Dr. Green personally uses obsidian scalpels, he warns that they will not likely be used broadly due to some marked drawbacks. These scalpels are not FDA approved. Because they are more brittle, they are prone to breaking and could cause more injury. Dr. Green warns that these scalpels feel very different during use than steel counterparts, and that doctors who are interested in using them must practice before attempting a procedure. Even so, these blades have proven useful for patients who may have a steel or metal allergy and cannot tolerate regular scalpels.

Superbugs, meet your match

MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are bacteria with resistance to typically used antibiotics. These infections, commonly known as staph infections, can be fatal and are difficult to treat. These “superbugs” are often found in hospitals, but have become more common in community settings.

Dr. Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert at the University of Nottingham, translated Bald’s Leechbook, one of the oldest known medical texts. During her translation efforts, she came across an “eyesalve” remedy for eye infections. She was intrigued by its inclusion of garlic, which is already being studied for possible antibiotic properties. Additionally, it was described as the “best of leechdoms.” Lee approached microbiologists at the university to see if they would be willing to try it.

The ingredients, including garlic and onion or leek, wine, and bile from a cow’s stomach were left to stand in a brass vessel for nine days, then strained through a cloth according to the directions. The scientists had little hope that the potion would work. But when applied to a population of billions of cells, the remedy left only a few thousand alive.

The scientists asked a U.S. team of researchers to do a study involving a live organism. The results from biopsies of mice wounds showed that  90 percent of MRSA bacteria were killed. These results were replicated multiple times. Researchers are not completely sure how it all works, but theorize that either steeping the ingredients in alcohol forms a potent new molecule or that the active properties of each ingredient combine to attack bacteria.