Nov 2, 2015

Staph Retreat

What happens when you combine an axe-wielding microbiologist and a disease-obsessed historian? A strange brew that's hard to resist, even for a modern day microbe.

In the war on devilish microbes, our weapons are starting to fail us.  The antibiotics we once wielded like miraculous flaming swords seem more like lukewarm butter knives.

But today we follow an odd couple to a storied land of elves and dragons. There, they uncover a 1000-year-old secret that makes us reconsider our most basic assumptions about human progress and wonder: What if the only way forward is backward?

Reported by Latif Nasser. Produced by Matt Kielty and Soren Wheeler.

Special thanks to Steve Diggle, Professor Roberta Frank, Alexandra Reider and Justin Park (our Old English readers), Gene Murrow from Gotham Early Music Scene, Marcia Young for her performance on the medieval harp and Collin Monro of Tadcaster and the rest of the Barony of Iron Bog.

 

 

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Jad Abumrad:

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Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radiolab. And today...

Robert Krulwich:

Well, today it's the story of an ax wielding nun coming through a window to smack some Staphylococcus, and take you back to the future.

Jad Abumrad:

(Laughing) Exactly. This story comes-

Robert Krulwich:

Does that make any sense? I don't know.

Jad Abumrad:

Well it will.

Robert Krulwich:

Okay. It will.

Jad Abumrad:

It will. This story comes in two parts, both from our producer Latif Nasser. And here's part one.

Latif Nasser:

So the way the story goes, it starts in 1928.

Maryn McKenna:

  1. Alexander Fleming, the story goes, who knows if it's apocryphal or not, is growing staph. Staphylococcus. In his lab.

Latif Nasser:

That's Maryn McKenna. She's a science writer. And staph is a bacterium.

Maryn McKenna:

It lives on our skin, and it especially likes parts of the body that are warm and damp.

Latif Nasser:

So it likes to be just up our noses, or...

Maryn McKenna:

On our genitals, or in our armpits, places like that.

Latif Nasser:

And generally, it's no big deal. Doesn't really do us any harm. But if it gets into a scratch or a cut and makes its way inside our bodies...

Maryn McKenna:

Staph goes form being this benign companion to being... potentially deadly.

Latif Nasser:

Anyway. London, 1928.

Maryn McKenna:

Fleming is growing staph in his lab.

Latif Nasser:

In these little Petri dishes. And he was a slob basically.

Maryn McKenna:

(Laughs)

Latif Nasser:

And he goes on a vacation, leaves his Petri dishes covered in bacteria just around. Leaves his window open.

Maryn McKenna:

And something blows across his lab plates.

Latif Nasser:

Some tiny little speck of a thing just floats in through the window and comes to a rest on one of those Petri dishes.

Maryn McKenna:

And so a few weeks later...

Latif Nasser:

Fleming finally, back from vacation.

Maryn McKenna:

He needs to use those lab plates again, and he and his assistant go to clean them off.

Latif Nasser:

I mean you'd imagine that he would see some real lush nice furry...

Jad Abumrad:

(Laughs)

Latif Nasser:

... Lawn of staph just overflowing.

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

Right out of the plate.

Jad Abumrad:

Because it's been sitting there for so long.

Latif Nasser:

It's been a staph party.

Maryn McKenna:

But on one of the plates that they pick up, they realize that... it's almost polka dot. It's got little dead zones all over it.

Latif Nasser:

Little patches, uh, where the staph is dead.

Robert Krulwich:

Dead patches.

Jad Abumrad:

Dead zones.

Robert Krulwich:

So something blew through the window, landed on the dish, and starts killing the bacteria.

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, and so when Fleming looks down at his plate, he sees that at the center of these, you know, staph dead zones, uh, there's a...

Maryn McKenna:

Tiny speck of natural mold.

Jad Abumrad:

Oh.

Robert Krulwich:

Of mold?

Maryn McKenna:

And they realize that that mold is expressing a compound that is killing the staph around it.

Latif Nasser:

It's like emanating rays of death.

Jad Abumrad:

What was the compound?

Latif Nasser:

That compound was called...

Maryn McKenna:

Penicillin.

Latif Nasser:

The first true antibiotic.

Maryn McKenna:

Infectious diseases that had been killing people for as long as we had been people suddenly could be stopped.

Jad Abumrad:

And it just blew in through the window?

Maryn McKenna:

That is the... that is the story that's always been told.

Latif Nasser:

However it got there, it- it was... it was amazing. It was a miracle.

Robert Krulwich:

It was called a miracle drug, right?

Maryn McKenna:

I mean it was just... it was... it really was a moment when the world changed. When Fleming was put on the cover of TIME Magazine.

Latif Nasser:

This is 1944. Height of World War 2.

Maryn McKenna:

It was a picture of his face and the h- the banner on the cover said, "His penicillin will save more lives than war can spend."

Latif Nasser:

But... and this is, um, I- I had no idea about this. Virtually at the exact same time when Fleming's face is on the cover of TIME Magazine, like two months later, um, this Stanford researcher publishes that he has found five different strains of staph that do not respond to penicillin.

Jad Abumrad:

Really?

Latif Nasser:

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

This is happening while he's on the cover?

Latif Nasser:

Virtually the exact same moment.

Maryn McKenna:

And it's the first sign that staph has responded to the penicillin in the world by developing resistance.

Soren Wheeler:

It's almost like, uh-

Jad Abumrad:

That's our producer, Soren Wheeler.

Soren Wheeler:

... The era of penicillin was over before it began.

Maryn McKenna:

Almost before it began.

Latif Nasser:

Before it's even released to the general public. (Laughs)

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

Maryn McKenna:

And that penicillin resistant staph moves across the globe.

Latif Nasser:

And in 1957, in Cleveland, some scientists gather together...

Maryn McKenna:

And they are in a panic. They have no idea why they've lost the antibiotic miracle so quickly.

Latif Nasser:

So scientists across the globe put their brains together and try to come up with a new drug.

Maryn McKenna:

The next amazing thing.

Latif Nasser:

And in 1960 they get it.

Maryn McKenna:

Methicillin.

Latif Nasser:

And it works.

Maryn McKenna:

For about 11 months.

Robert Krulwich:

11 months? (Laughing)

Jad Abumrad:

Whoa.

Latif Nasser:

And so we started this arms race.

Maryn McKenna:

There was a bug, and then there was a drug that took care of it.

Latif Nasser:

(Laughing)

Maryn McKenna:

And then there was a better bug.

Latif Nasser:

Drug, bug, drug, bug.

Maryn McKenna:

Right, exactly.

Latif Nasser:

I actually found this list. Uh, do you wanna hear it?

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

Uh, okay. So streptomycin, 1943, resistant 1948. Methicillin, 1960, resistant 1961. Clindamycin, 1969, resistant 1970.

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

Maryn McKenna:

You can think of it as leap frog, or you can think of it as a game of whack-a-mole...

Latif Nasser:

Ampicillin, 1961, then 1973. So that's a little... Carbenicillin, released 1964, resistant 1974.

Jad Abumrad:

They're getting better. They're getting better.

Maryn McKenna:

There were always more drugs. You know, they... drug development was doing really well for a really long time.

Latif Nasser:

Piperacillin, introduced 1980, resistant 1981.

Maryn McKenna:

But after the year 2000, drug companies begin to realize it's not really in their best interest to make antibiotics anymore.

Latif Nasser:

And the end I have on this list is, uh, linezolid, which is introduced 2000, resistant 2002.

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

Latif Nasser:

And there are a few more, but you get the idea.

Maryn McKenna:

Antibiotic approvals, the- the entry of new drugs to the market, just kind of fell off a cliff.

Jad Abumrad:

Why?

Maryn McKenna:

Well, t- it takes 10 years and a billion dollars to get to the point where the drug is marketable.

Latif Nasser:

But as soon as you get the drug on the market...

Maryn McKenna:

The resistance clock is running.

Latif Nasser:

So you probably won't make your money back. And as you've probably heard, we now have these situations...

News person:

A frightening new warning from the Centers for Disease Control about the spread of a string of germs that are [crosstalk 00:07:21]...

Maryn McKenna:

Where literally nothing works.

News person:

... So-called superbugs are now turning up in hospitals in 40 different states...

Maryn McKenna:

And the patient dies.

Latif Nasser:

There are now bugs that can resist all of our drugs.

Maryn McKenna:

I've seen physicians break down weeping over this. Th- it's not the- the way that medicine is supposed to fail anymore. But it does.

Latif Nasser:

I mean, i- I- i- I know that- that possibly the- the origin story of penicillin is- is apocryphal, so this is all a little suspect. (laughs) But, you know, just to enjoy imagining s- for a moment, like it just seems like if that happened, let's just open up a bunch more windows. Just... something oughta blow in.

Maryn McKenna:

But we could wait a long time. Right? I mean we had... Staph had been around-

Latif Nasser:

Right.

Maryn McKenna:

... For millennia before 1928.

Latif Nasser:

But you know the whole reason that I wanted to do this story is because, kinda there is a new window. It's a different kinda window though. It's-

Jad Abumrad:

Not a... not a window next to some Petri dishes?

Latif Nasser:

Not a window next to some Petri dishes. Kind of a window next to some Petri dishes, but a totally different kinda window.

Jad Abumrad:

(Laughs) What kinda window is it?

Latif Nasser:

Well, I'm about to tell you that.

Jad Abumrad:

Is something blowing to the window?

Latif Nasser:

Yeah. But it's not mold. It's way more fun than mold. It- it- it- it- it carries an ax, how 'bout that?

Jad Abumrad:

So it's a person.

Latif Nasser:

Maybe. (Laughing)

Jad Abumrad:

(Laughing)

Latif Nasser:

I don't know why... I don't even know what I'm referring to anymore.

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Jad Abumrad:

Uh, part two?

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

Okay. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radiolab.

Robert Krulwich:

We're ready now for part two. Now remember when part one ended, there was a window open and something was going to come through. We don't know what.

Jad Abumrad:

But we know it's not mold.

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah, we know it's not mold. So whatever it is, whatever it was, whatever it will be, we will hear about it now from our reporter Latif Nasser.

Latif Nasser:

Uh, well actually there is this story about these two women who did open a window. Uh, to- to an alien and distant land. (Laughs) Um, and actually in a way it's a story about reimagining the past. But to me it's a... it's a... it's a... it's a story about a friendship.

Latif Nasser:

Hey everybody!

Dr. Christina Lee:

Hello again!

Freya Harrison:

Hi! [crosstalk]

Latif Nasser:

It's a story about an unlikely friendship. Um, it's-

Jad Abumrad:

It's a buddy film.

Latif Nasser:

It's a buddy... yeah. It's a buddy movie.

Robert Krulwich:

(Laughs)

Jad Abumrad:

Okay so w- so yeah, tell... t- maybe just walk us through it. So...

Latif Nasser:

Right. So, okay. So you have, um...

Dr. Christina Lee:

Hello, I'm Dr. Christina Lee.

Latif Nasser:

... Christina.

Dr. Christina Lee:

And I'm an associate professor in Viking studies at the School of English at the University of Nottingham.

Latif Nasser:

She's a historian. And then you also have...

Freya Harrison:

Hi, I'm Freya Harrison.

Latif Nasser:

... Freya.

Freya Harrison:

I'm a research fellow in the Center for Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Nottingham.

Latif Nasser:

And Freya- Freya's a microbiologist. She studies bacteria. We'll start with her.

Freya Harrison:

Okay. So most of my work is- is about sort of looking at how bacteria evolved during very, very long lived infections. But-

Reenactor:

Ah!

Freya Harrison:

... My- my big hobby is- is Anglo Saxon and Viking reenactment.

Reenactor:

Hold!

Freya Harrison:

So I [inaudible] sort of amateur interest in- in history, and, uh, mainly in, uh, dressing up as a warrior and, uh, going to fight club every Wednesday night and learning to use the weapons.

Robert Krulwich:

Really? (Laughing)

Freya Harrison:

Yep.

Latif Nasser:

So this is actually not Freya's group. This is a group in New Jersey. But basically they do the same thing. Hundreds of people go out into, you know, some field with some dulled weapons...

Freya Harrison:

Everything from swords to spears, axes, and we give each other a- a jolly good bashing and have a good time! (Laughs)

Latif Nasser:

I only mention this 'cause it- it actually plays into the story.

Freya Harrison:

Well it was... it was really a nice sort of coincidence, really. So I-

Latif Nasser:

  1. A few years after finishing her doctorate, Freya goes off to work at the University of Nottingham.

Freya Harrison:

Nottingham's one of the places in the UK not only for- for microbiology, but for sort of Anglo Saxon and Viking history.

Latif Nasser:

And she goes there to study microbes, but she figures, "Hey, why not, while I'm here, brush up on my Old English?"

Freya Harrison:

[Foreign language 00:13:06] I'd studied some Old English to a- a level where I could sort of read and- and speak a little bit. [Foreign language 00:13:14]

Latif Nasser:

But she figured, hey, she could... she could be better. And if she did she- she would get deeper into the whole reenactment thing.

Freya Harrison:

So I rather cheekily emailed the School of English's Old English reading group.

Latif Nasser:

That's where she met Christina.

Dr. Christina Lee:

Yes!

Latif Nasser:

The historian.

Dr. Christina Lee:

And I thought Freya was [crosstalk 00:13:30]-

Latif Nasser:

One point, uh, Christina the historian asks Freya, like, what do you do? And Freya said, you know, uh, "My day job is that I'm a microbiologist, but on evenings and weekends I'm a history nerd." And Christina said the moment she heard that...

Dr. Christina Lee:

I just kind of thought, I've- I've found my kindred spirit here.

Latif Nasser:

Because she was like, "Wow, I'm like your mirror image. Because I'm a historian by day, but by night I'm a microbiology nerd."

Dr. Christina Lee:

I've been interested in, um, infectious disease for quite a long time. Which, um, I don't... I don't find any kind of friends in my department.

Latif Nasser:

She told me she's the kind of person who would, you know, watch Ebola coverage on the news and not be able to stop watching. So eventually, they start talking about historical diseases. So like, how would people back then have treated something like, you know, Ebola? Freya is especially interested in this, because she, for her historical reenactment, is developing this nun character who goes off and heals people. But anyway, so they're talking back and forth, and then to cut a long story short, they- they find themselves both interested in this one particular book.

Dr. Christina Lee:

It's known as Bald's Leechbook. So this is probably 1100 years old.

Robert Krulwich:

What's it called? Ball- balls what?

Dr. Christina Lee:

Bald's Leechbook.

Robert Krulwich:

Bald's.

Dr. Christina Lee:

It's nothing to do with no hair.

Robert Krulwich:

Oh!

Dr. Christina Lee:

(Laughs) Even though it is spelled [crosstalk 00:14:50]...

Robert Krulwich:

Bal- is it B-A-L-D, uh-

Dr. Christina Lee:

It is indeed.

Robert Krulwich:

And leech, like leech, like a... like a leech, like a little worm that grabs onto your... and sucks your blood?

Dr. Christina Lee:

(Laughs) No. No, it comes from the Old English word [foreign language 00:14:59], which is actually a healer or a doctor.

Freya Harrison:

So is it... The- the little squiggly animals are called leeches because they're medicinal. Not the other way around. (Laughing)

Robert Krulwich:

Oh!

Latif Nasser:

So the doctor wasn't named for the leech, the leech was named for the doctor? (Laughing)

Freya Harrison:

Exactly, yeah. (Laughing)

Jad Abumrad:

And Bald is the... is a man? The guy who wrote the book?

Freya Harrison:

We think it's a guy. We think it's a guy's name.

Jad Abumrad:

And what is this book?

Latif Nasser:

So it's kinda like this old healer's handbook. It's filled with these potions and cures...

Dr. Christina Lee:

The original manuscript is in the British Library-

Latif Nasser:

Locked away.

Freya Harrison:

But 21st century, very kind people have digitized the original Old English text and- and put it online.

Latif Nasser:

So Christina and Freya bring it up, and they start going through all the remedies.

Dr. Christina Lee:

And, you know so it- it describes to you remedies for staph that is a little bit different.

Freya Harrison:

You know, things like-

Freya Harrison:

Uh, possession by the devil.

Latif Nasser:

Which, according to this Leechbook, the remedy for someone who is possessed by the devil is you...

Latif Nasser:

... Make this kind of like foul brew, you make 'em drink it, and it'll make 'em vomit out the devil. And- and- and then there's another remedy for warts.

Latif Nasser:

And, uh, all I'm gonna say about that one is that it involves hound's urine and mouse blood.

Dr. Christina Lee:

And then things like...

Dr. Christina Lee:

How should we say, make your husband more physically attentive.

Latif Nasser:

(Laughs)

Dr. Christina Lee:

Or less physically attentive. Whichever you... whichever direction you need to moderate it.

Robert Krulwich:

Pig's blood, I hope. Or toad blood.

Latif Nasser:

Actually, it's just you boil a plant in some water and give it to the guy.

Robert Krulwich:

Oh.

Latif Nasser:

Yeah. Anyway. So Freya and Christina are going through this Leechbook, looking for some kind of wound...

Freya Harrison:

Something that was clearly an infection.

Latif Nasser:

Some pussy, uh, something?

Freya Harrison:

We could clearly say, that's- that's bacterial.

Latif Nasser:

And eventually, they- they find an entry...

Freya Harrison:

Where at the end of the recipe, it says in Old English...

Freya Harrison:

[foreign language 00:16:53] The best medicine.

Latif Nasser:

The best medicine!

Robert Krulwich:

Hm.

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, move over laughter.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah. And we thought, how can we not try this one? (Laughing)

Latif Nasser:

What was the best medicine for?

Freya Harrison:

So, it said it was for a lump in the eye.

Dr. Christina Lee:

It's actually called [foreign language 00:17:09] in Old English.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah. These days if you get a... 'cause that- that could be something like a wart, right? But there is a suggestion by archeologists that eye infection was- was rife amongst the Anglo Saxons-

Latif Nasser:

Really?

Freya Harrison:

Because you lived in buildings where you- you have smoke going on. You lived cramped together. So it could also be a sty.

Latif Nasser:

What is a sty?

Freya Harrison:

It- it's an infection of an eyelash follicle.

Robert Krulwich:

You rub it, and it itches, and then it gets swollen.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah, and it causes quite a nasty red lump.

Robert Krulwich:

It's a sty in your eye.

Latif Nasser:

Sty in your eye. Now it just so happens that the bacteria that causes the sty in your eye is-

Freya Harrison:

Staphylococcus aureus.

Latif Nasser:

Staph.

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, the same stuff as the Mr. Window Man. Penicillin man.

Latif Nasser:

Exactly.

Freya Harrison:

And we just thought, wouldn't it be nice to have a bit of spare time and had a couple of hundred quid to buy the ingredients and just give this a go?

Dr. Christina Lee:

Yes! Let's give it a try.

Freya Harrison:

You know, why- why the hell not?

Latif Nasser:

And, matter of fact... Look at this place!

Latif Nasser:

We thought that too.

Matt Kielty:

... Studio.

Latif Nasser:

Not bad at all.

Latif Nasser:

Recently, producer Matt Kielty and I went to my tiny apartment in the city. And-

Matt Kielty:

All right.

Latif Nasser:

... We tried to cook it up too.

Matt Kielty:

Are you ready to cook?

Latif Nasser:

Oh I'm ready to cook.

Freya Harrison:

I've- I've got this recipe here if-

Latif Nasser:

Oh awesome.

Freya Harrison:

... You'd like it.

Latif Nasser:

Yeah, yeah yeah. Please, read it. Go for it.

Freya Harrison:

Okay. It goes like this...

Latif Nasser:

That's the first line of the recipe. And right off the bat for Christina and Freya, there's a problem. That first ingredient...

Freya Harrison:

The word [foreign language 00:18:32].

Freya Harrison:

Christina said it was quite difficult to translate.

Dr. Christina Lee:

Nobody quite knows, you know, what it is. But luckily...

Latif Nasser:

Just a couple words over was a clue.

Latif Nasser:

In a second ingredient.

Freya Harrison:

Garlic.

Dr. Christina Lee:

Which, um, is an allium species. And [foreign language 00:18:48]...

Freya Harrison:

We know this was another allium. That's what the dictionary of Old English, um, tells us.

Latif Nasser:

So they figured probably what they were dealing with was an onion or a leek...

Freya Harrison:

But we didn't know which one. So we thought, okay, we'll try one that has onion and one that has leek.

Latif Nasser:

Now-

Latif Nasser:

The recipe doesn't cover this, but we did it anyway. Um, peel the onion. Chop it up. The same with the garlic.

Dr. Christina Lee:

And the recipe doesn't tell you how much. It just tells you equal amounts of.

Latif Nasser:

Uh, so you take out the measuring cups, you measure out equal amounts.

Matt Kielty:

Yeah, equal amounts. And there's a pestle.

Latif Nasser:

And then after that...

Matt Kielty:

Okay, it says...

Matt Kielty:

[crosstalk] Pounded well together.

Dr. Christina Lee:

You have to really pound it. And- and pound it Freya did.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah. Yeah. So, um, lots of... lots of time with a mortar and pestle. (Laughing) And muscles built up from, uh, wielding a sword for pounding the ingredients.

Matt Kielty:

Look, it's starting to be more of a mush.

Latif Nasser:

Third ingredient.

Freya Harrison:

The next one was definitely something you wouldn't have knocking around in your kitchen.

Freya Harrison:

Ox gall.

Latif Nasser:

Ox gall.

Freya Harrison:

Bovine bile from a... from a cow's gallbladder.

Robert Krulwich:

What do you have to, kill the cow and then go reaching...

Freya Harrison:

No. It's actually a- a very standard ingredient in microbiology labs.

Matt Kielty:

Ox bile.

Latif Nasser:

Today, in 2015, you can but should not just buy it on the internet.

Matt Kielty:

Here we go, here we go.

Latif Nasser:

And so you take the ox bile, add it to the onion and garlic...

Freya Harrison:

And then the fourth ingredient.

Freya Harrison:

Wine.

Latif Nasser:

It's wine time. Red wine? White wine? What... like, what kind-

Freya Harrison:

Well-

Latif Nasser:

... Of wine are we talking about here?

Freya Harrison:

This is the thing. So we- we had quite a discussion about what type of wine should we use, and we don't know really, did they have red wine? Did they have white wine? What was the alcohol content? But I did a bit of... bit of detective work.

Latif Nasser:

And she figured out that the monastery where this Leechbook was written... well they, she figured out where their vineyard was.

Freya Harrison:

And just down the road, there's this modern organic vineyard.

Latif Nasser:

So they used that wine.

Latif Nasser:

I just wanna point out how difficult it is to find English wine. We had to use Italian. But...

Latif Nasser:

Once you get all that stuff together, you're on to the final ingredient.

Freya Harrison:

The- the fifth ingredient was actually the... you're specifically told that you have to mix these ingredients together in a brass or a bronze pot. Um, I don't have one. (Laughing) Um, so we had to sort of add pieces of, you know... of copper that would've been available to people at the time.

Latif Nasser:

So they had to do some research, but they figured that the copper of today that is most like the copper of a millennium ago was actually...

Freya Harrison:

Cartridge brass. Which is what's used as standard in plumbing fittings.

Matt Kielty:

Drop a few pennies in there.

Latif Nasser:

We actually used pennies.

Matt Kielty:

Do I stir it? I think I stir it. This is like the world's worst cooking show.

Latif Nasser:

(Laughs)

Freya Harrison:

And it- it looks and smells like quite a nice, uh... quite a nice summer soup. (Laughs)

Matt Kielty:

Oh!

Latif Nasser:

Oh, it looks awful.

Matt Kielty:

Oh, that's so gross.

Latif Nasser:

Clearly, we botched this whole thing.

Latif Nasser:

And, uh, finally...

Matt Kielty:

All right, so we're gonna cover it.

Latif Nasser:

Okay, we're covering it.

Latif Nasser:

The directions say we have to let the whole thing sit for a while.

Freya Harrison:

It has to be stored for nine days and nights.

Latif Nasser:

Okay. That's it.

Robert Krulwich:

One day goes by. Two days, three, four, five.

Latif Nasser:

Six, seven, eight, nine.

Matt Kielty:

All right. Nine days later.

Latif Nasser:

Uh, all right. Here we go. You ready?

Matt Kielty:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Latif Nasser:

All right, here we go.

Freya Harrison:

And...

Freya Harrison:

Then you have to strain it through a cloth. The liquid that comes off, you apply to the person's eye.

Matt Kielty:

Oh the liquid!

Dr. Christina Lee:

With a feather.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah.

Dr. Christina Lee:

With a feather.

Freya Harrison:

With a feather.

Latif Nasser:

Now, clearly we didn't have any staff to try this out on. But Freya, in her lab, she made these mock wounds.

Freya Harrison:

With these little plugs of- of- of collagen. So it's a bit like jelly.

Latif Nasser:

Basically it's like a... like a goopy substance made to be kind of like a flesh wound.

Freya Harrison:

And we infect these wounds with bacteria. With the staph.

Latif Nasser:

Then they put this 1000 year old recipe that had been standing there for nine days, they put it on the bacteria that was in the fake wound.

Freya Harrison:

We'd... obviously we're... we- we didn't think this was going to work.

Dr. Christina Lee:

No.

Freya Harrison:

We thought, you know, well given the ingredients, we might see some small healing effect on the bacteria, but it won't be anything to write home about.

Latif Nasser:

They thought maybe it'd kill 10%, 20% of the bacteria. But then when they came back the next day...

Freya Harrison:

It was a staph massacre.

Latif Nasser:

It went on a rampage. It went on a staph rampage.

Freya Harrison:

It was killing, you know, 99.99999% of- of these bacterial cells.

Latif Nasser:

What!

Freya Harrison:

Yeah. First we thought we made some sort of mistake and this was some kind of fluke, you know? We'd- we'd accidentally mixed up our plates, or mislabeled something.

Latif Nasser:

So. They rerun the entire experiment again. They grab the ingredients, mash 'em up, put 'em on some bacteria, and it happens again!

Freya Harrison:

Just absolutely wiped out the bacteria in these [crosstalk] wounds.

Dr. Christina Lee:

Killed them dead.

Latif Nasser:

Then they tried a third time, and a fourth, and a fifth, and it worked every time!

Freya Harrison:

And this is... this- this is just something you- you really don't see in your career as a microbiologist. (Laughing)

Latif Nasser:

And eventually, they escalated from just regular staph to- to MRSA. To the methicillin resistant staph. And this is one of the bad ones.

News person:

A superbug. New government data estimate that about 2000 people are dying of community based MRSA every year.

News person 2:

This one is- is very dangerous. [crosstalk]

Latif Nasser:

So Christina and Freya, they sent some of Bald's brew to one of their collaborators in the States.

Freya Harrison:

Our collaborator, Kendra Rumbaugh in- in Lubbock, in Texas-

Latif Nasser:

Kendra took the stuff, put it on some MRSA bacteria, and then a week later, sent Christina and Freya an email.

Freya Harrison:

And I think it was actually a three word response. I th- I think she just simply said-

Freya Harrison:

What the (beep). (Laughing)

Latif Nasser:

(Laughing)

Latif Nasser:

Bald's best medicine had just wreaked havoc on the MRSA. It killed 90% of them.

Freya Harrison:

It's just... It's beyond our wildest dreams.

Latif Nasser:

Now, u- uh, Freya and Christina made very clear that this is not yet a miracle drug. I mean, it's not even being tested in humans.

Dr. Christina Lee:

So absolutely do not do this at home.

Latif Nasser:

They don't even know if this is safe.

Freya Harrison:

It might be that if you don't do it in exactly the way we did, nasty fungus could grow in it, give you a worse infection.

Latif Nasser:

So, uh...

Matt Kielty:

We should not have done this. (Laughs)

Latif Nasser:

(Laughing)

Latif Nasser:

Matt and I, we... dumped ours down the drain. But the thing about this whole story that is so intriguing and so cool to me is this time travel thing, which is so strange. Like it's like, the idea that w- something a thousand years ago, uh... like a bullet forged a thousand years ago, we could... we could use it now and that it could work. That- that t- the time travel dimension of that is so weird to me.

Latif Nasser:

It kind of makes you think differently about, I don't know, progress.

Presenter:

So, uh, without much further ado, Dr. Christina Lee and, uh, Dr. Freya Harrison, and they're going to talk to us about some ancient biotics.

Latif Nasser:

For example, just a few weeks ago, uh, Freya and Christina got up in front of the Royal Society of Chemists.

Dr. Christina Lee:

Thank you very much, and it is an absolute pleasure to be here [crosstalk 00:26:06]-

Latif Nasser:

Large hotel conference room, hundred or so people. Uh, Freya actually, uh, got up on stage dressed as a nun.

Freya Harrison:

Okay. So this is one interpretation of what a- an Anglo Saxon scientist may have looked like. [crosstalk]

Latif Nasser:

And they presented the results.

Freya Harrison:

Next ingredient is particularly [crosstalk 00:26:23]-

Latif Nasser:

They did the cooking demo. And then at some point, Christina said something really interesting. She was like, okay sure, we wanna write this off because it has demons and dragons and elves in it. But are we sure that we know what they meant by those words? Like, for example...

Dr. Christina Lee:

There are remedies which ask you, "Sing four Ava Marias."

Latif Nasser:

And we would say, oh, that's so superstitious. This is all in their heads.

Dr. Christina Lee:

But there again, we should also remember, this is a period when people do not have watches. You do not have your [inaudible 00:26:52], you know, so that's got the watch. Everybody knows the Ava Maria. Everybody knows the length of an Ava Maria. [crosstalk]

Latif Nasser:

So maybe it's... maybe it's, take this medicine and wait twenty minutes. Uh, and I know how to standardize 20 minutes, which is...

Dr. Christina Lee:

Three Ava Marias, four Ava Marias, may actually be time periods [crosstalk 00:27:08]-

Latif Nasser:

Uh, so- so it-

Robert Krulwich:

Oh that's fascinating.

Latif Nasser:

It may appear one way. And it's... it in fact could be a- a totally different way.

Jad Abumrad:

It suggests that the... in order to time travel, you have to somehow... God, it's like we don't even have the w- the language to be able to understand what they were doing.

Latif Nasser:

Th- there's a ph-

Jad Abumrad:

And how effective it-

Latif Nasser:

There's a phrase. "The- the past is a foreign country."

Dr. Christina Lee:

We need to learn the language of the doctors of that time. We need to kind of be a little bit less, um, dismissive, and learn a little more [inaudible] from them. I learned a bit of humility this way.

Latif Nasser:

But here's the reason why this is so confusing to me.

Freya Harrison:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Latif Nasser:

So 1100 years is a crazy long time for humans, and for bacteria that's like a exponentially crazy long time.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

So how is it that something that this man Bald was doing to these bacteria then... Like- like it's not even the same bacteria.

Freya Harrison:

Yeah.

Latif Nasser:

How could that even work.

Freya Harrison:

That- that's a... that's an awesome question. So- so one thing we've got to think about is, so why did these medicines drop out of use? And maybe it's because when they were used, the bacteria evolved resistance. But now, a thousand years later, when these medicines have not been used, you would expect that resistance to be lost.

Latif Nasser:

This is something that Maryn McKenna mentioned to Soren and I. That sometimes when you take a drug out of circulation-

Maryn McKenna:

Sometimes, resistance will decline. That doesn't always work, but sometimes resistance does decline. So if we had been using this compound through the ensuing thousand years, maybe it wouldn't work.

Robert Krulwich:

So there's an interesting discovery there. Like, that what worked once, and then was resisted, you give it a rest, it can work again. And it will be resisted. And you put it to rest, and if you had enough different... if you could go to different places and the different path... to- to go to China, where they now got all these people studying Chinese cures, and Arab cures, you could come up with a... with a rich historical cocktail of armamentarium that will work if you bring 'em in, take 'em out. Bring 'em in, take 'em out. And the whole world... the whole world of the past then becomes the food of your future, sort of.

Soren Wheeler:

So it's also poss- i- like, now I have a... suddenly an image that it's possible that- that-

Jad Abumrad:

This is Soren Wheeler by the way, in conversation with Maryn McKenna and Latif.

Soren Wheeler:

... That- that a thousand years ago, these folks went through what we went through with penicillin. And that they... this guy wrote something in the book, and it's actually called the best medicine. He probably got on the cover of whatever their version of TIME was.

Maryn McKenna:

He got their Nobel prize.

Soren Wheeler:

And everybody celebrated. And then years later sties were coming back and the garlic wine didn't work anymore, and they stopped using it, and it got put away. And then here we are, and we discover it, and it's been put away long enough that... Like then- then now I'm thinking about future... some future... civilization digs up an old medical textbook that was in some dusty whatever and discovers penicillin. And it works. Did we... did I lose you on that, Maryn?

Maryn McKenna:

No, no. I'm still with you. I'm just, I don't kn- know how... I- it just seems like su- it seems like such a great hypothetical construction, I just didn't really know what I could add to it. (Laughing) Sorry.

Soren Wheeler:

(Laughing) Sorry I took over.

Jad Abumrad:

Producer Latif Nasser with help from Soren Wheeler and, uh, produced by Matthew Kielty. Special thanks to say are to Steve Diggle...

Robert Krulwich:

And to Alexandra Reider and Justin Park, who came down from Yale to be our Old English readers.

Jad Abumrad:

To Gene Murrow from the Gotham Early Music Scene...

Robert Krulwich:

And to Marcia Young on the medieval harp.

Jad Abumrad:

Collin Monro of Tadcaster.

Robert Krulwich:

And the rest of the Barony of Iron Bog.

Jad Abumrad:

Not totally sure what that is, but I know they helped us out. And I guess we should help ourselves out.

Robert Krulwich:

Yes, very quickly. (Laughing)

Jad Abumrad:

Out the door. (Laughing) Or through the window. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks for listening.

Voicemail:

Message five. New.

Maryn McKenna:

This is Maryn McKenna.

Justin Park:

Hi, this is Justin Park from the English department at Yale.

Sonny Fox:

Okay, [Sonny Fox 00:31:26] and I'm reading the appointed message.

Maryn McKenna:

Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.

Justin Park:

[foreign language] Jad Abumrad.

Maryn McKenna:

Our staff includes Brenna Farrell, David Gebel, Dylan Keefe...

Sonny Fox:

Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Andy Mills, Latif Nasser...

Justin Park:

Elsie Patrick...

Maryn McKenna:

Arianne Wack...

Sonny Fox:

Molly Webster, Soren Wheeler, and Jamie York, with help from...

Maryn McKenna:

Alexandra Lee Young, Abigail Kiel...

Justin Park:

And Alexandra Brennan.

Maryn McKenna:

Our fact checkers are...

Maryn McKenna:

Eva Dasher and Michelle Harris.

Voicemail:

End of message.

 

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