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As Big Pharma Abandons Antibiotic Research, Scientists Turn to Graves, Lizards, and Fungus for New Cures

Inside the Global Scavenger Hunt to Beat the ‘Antibiotic Apocalypse’

Chris Baraniuk
Published in
14 min readMay 1, 2019

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IIt’s said that for nearly 200 years, residents of a small rural area in Northern Ireland called Boho (pronounced “bo”), have practiced a strange and solemn pilgrimage to a local chapel. But they don’t come to pray within the chapel walls. Instead, they’re here for the dirt outside.

The Sacred Heart Chapel’s churchyard contains the centuries-old grave of Father James McGirr, a former priest. The soil above his body, it’s believed, has healing properties. The sick and ailing take a pinch of the stuff, pray with it for four days, then bring it back.

The “Boho cure,” as it’s known, is still popular today, and those who practice it hope it will heal anything from brain hemorrhages to cancer. John Corrigan, an elderly local man known as “the merchant” for his business acumen, says that over the years, he has fetched spoonfuls of the soil for various people in need.

Though the cure may be nothing more than a manifestation of the placebo effect, Corrigan says he’s convinced “that there is definitely power in it.” Thanks to the Boho cure, he says, a friend of his regained consciousness after a brain hemorrhage.

And it’s not just locals who are interested in the Boho cure. In an October 2018 study, researchers claimed that a potentially new antibiotic-producing strain of bacteria had been found in the same churchyard soil. Corrigan, for one, is unimpressed with the analysis. “The blessed clay has nothing to do with science. It has to do with faith,” he says.

Today, humanity faces an invisible crisis: Antibiotics, which we use to fight infections ranging from pneumonia to chlamydia, are losing their efficacy. Prophylactic use of these drugs prevents infection from taking hold in the first place, making surgery and cancer therapies safe. It’s no exaggeration to say that antibiotics underpin huge swathes of modern medicine, says Richard Ebright of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology in New Jersey.

“[Without antibiotics] you can’t do surgery of any kind, you can’t do chemotherapy, you can’t do…

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Chris Baraniuk
OneZero

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.