16th-Century Text Shows Ginkgo Seeds Can Fight Skin Infections

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Inspired by a centuries-old text on traditional Chinese medicine, a young researcher has found that seeds from the gingko tree could prove helpful for acne, psoriasis, dermatitis and eczema.

A few years ago, a microbiologist and an Anglo Saxon scholar decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald's Leechbook. Following the direction as closely as they could, they ended up with a potion that kills the MRSA superbug.

Now a student currently at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy has looked similarly back in time to gain wisdom from the past. While a student at Emory University, Xinyi (Xena) Huang was searching for a topic for her senior thesis as a biology major. When a ginkgo tree caught her eye, she remembered that the tree had roots, so to speak, in traditional Chinese medicine so she decided to investigate. Which is what led her to a nearly 200-year-old copy of a 16th-century text on traditional Chinese medicine, the Ben Cao Gang Mu, a comprehensive compendium written by Li Shi-zhen. Which, as luck would have it, belonged to one of the school’s library collections.

Ben Cao Gang Mu

Ben Cao Gang Mu / Emory University Pitts Theology Library/CC BY 4.0

"You can feel the history in it," she says. "The paper is so yellow, thin and fragile that I was afraid I would break the pages as I was turning them."

And thus, a study was born ... and which has just been published in Frontiers in Microbiology. Huang is the lead author.

The ginkgo tree, famed for its fan shaped leaves and known as one of the oldest tree species on the planet, has been researched extensively for its use in medicine – but mostly for its leaves.

In a volume called "Grains, Vegetables, Fruits," Huang found 17 traditional uses for the ginkgo seed and 8 of those described uses for skin disorders. Li Shi-Zhen instructed how to prepare a paste of ground seeds that was then to be applied topically to the affected area.

gingko seeds

© Xena Huang

Huang collected ginkgo samples for testing and followed the text’s instructions as closely as possible. Then, along with Cassandra Quave, senior author of the paper and assistant professor at Emory's Center for the Study of Human Health and the School of Medicine's Department of Dermatology, conducted microbial experiments on 12 different bacterial strains.

The results showed that various parts of the ginkgo seed exhibited antibacterial activity on three of the strains tested: Cutibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pyogenes. These pathogens can cause skin infections such as acne, psoriasis, dermatitis, and eczema.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate the antibacterial activity of ginkgo seeds on skin pathogens," says Quave. "This paper is just one more example of how much we still have to learn about the pharmacological potential of the complex chemistry of plants."

As Huang points out, the finding is still in a “basic, benchtop phase,” as the extracts have not yet been tested and substantial hurdles remain. Not the least of which is that one of the important compounds in the seeds appears to have skin toxicity.

Even so, Huang says “it is still a thrill for me to learn that this ancient story in the Ben Cao Gang Mu appears to be real."

"As a student pharmacist," she adds, "this gives me more appreciation for the value of using ancient plant remedies to guide modern-day research."

Just one more reason we should never underestimate the power of plants ... or our forebears, who figured this stuff out centuries ago.