Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Do not try this at home

12th century copy of Pliny the Elder's Natural History
The Washington Post headline, "MRSA superbug killed by 1,100-year-old home remedy, researchers say" caught my attention this morning. Ancient remedies fascinate people because there is a common perception that people in the past knew great secrets that are now lost to western medicine. In some cases this is true: local native remedies evolve through practice and researchers have become very interested in native remedies from the Brazilian rainforests and the like. Sometimes, these native remedies have been changed from the original formulae to be more effective and are marketed as "alternative treatments": the Canadian Ojibwa remedy that became Essiac being a good example, and one that was praised by Dr. Frederick Banting.

Before you start to search the online English translation Pliny the Elder's Natural History for a remedy that will become the next great treatment, you should understand that some of these ancient remedies are not only unworkable, but could even kill you. The Romans misguided use of lead being an example well known to many. Over thirty years ago, I was interested in the history of witchcraft and wondered if some of the legends about witches had a basis in the symptoms of consuming the plants used in their potions. I picked one plant that was used by witches and bought some of it at a "health food store" (my use of scare quotes is intentional). I reasoned that, while some plants might be ordinarily safe if used as prescribed by the witches, others might suffer from improper storage. I was inspired in this thought by reading about ergot poisoning cases. The plant I picked had nothing at all to do with ergot and, because people might be tempted to try something very foolish, I am not going to name it. I decided to try growing a mold on this plant material as this was a likely way that things could have become contaminated in ages past. Unlike some nineteenth century medical researchers, I decided not to use myself as a guinea pig. I had a friend who was a medical student and he arranged to have my mold sample tested.

Not all scientific discoveries are met with enthusiasm, and my friend was given a stern warning about the willy-nilly testing of substances for members of the public. The results of the testing was so dramatic that a formal warning to my friend was deemed necessary. It turned out that my suspicions were correct: one hypnotic drug contained in the plant was increased to a staggering degree by the mold. In what must have been less than 500 mg's of mold, there was enough of this drug to kill a dozen people.  This really solidified my belief in not using myself as a guinea pig and gave me pause to wonder about health food stores in general. I am sure that many witches "flew", but not on broomsticks!

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