Space & Innovation

Could Clay Help Attack Superbugs?

The ancient remedy could provide a new weapon against microbes.

Naturally occurring clay from British Columbia may provide an answer to the rising threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In a recent article in the American Society for Microbiology's mBio journal, University of British Columbia microbiologist Julian Davies and colleague Shekooh Behroozian say that the clay from Kisameet Bay - long used by the Heiltsuk First Nation for healing - showed the ability to kill multi-drug resistant pathogens.

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"After 50 years of over-using and misusing antibiotics, ancient medicinals and other natural mineral-based agents may provide new weapons in the battle against multidrug-resistant pathogens," Davies said in a press release.

The clay deposit is situated on Heiltsuk First Nation's traditional territory, about 250 miles north of Vancouver, in a shallow five-acre granite basin. The deposit was formed near the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 10,000 years ago. Native people have used the clay in treating ailments ranging from burns to arthritis.

The scientists suspended the clay in water, where it killed 16 different types of bacteria obtained from Vancouver General Hospital, St. Paul's Hospital, and the University of British Columbia's wastewater treatment pilot plant.

RELATED: New Resistant Superbug Spreading The scientists learned about the clay several years ago when they were approached by a company that wanted to use it as an ingredient in cosmetics and other products.

They wanted microbial testing on clay, so I was a bit skeptical at first," Davies told the Vancouver Sun. "Well, there are all sorts of claims out there, all kinds of folklore medicine and witchcraft."

The company interested in marketing the clay partly funded the research, according to the Sun article.

A separate set of researchers at Arizona State University recently published an article in Scientic Reports about the antibacterial properties of clay from Oregon. They believer that minerals in the clay explain its antibacterial properties.

Chitosan, a binder in some ointments, is derived from shellfish shells. It helps to bind lipids, or fats, in medicines and other products, such as hair-care items and antiperspirants. Although the level of this and other possible animal products in many medications is likely to be minimal, Patel and Tatham say doctors need to consider this when prescribing "to avoid non-adherence, which is a major healthcare concern." Adherence, in this case, means that doctors should be forthright about what’s contained in medications.

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Both magnesium stearate and gelatin, along with a blood clot preventer called heparin, can come from pigs. Patel and co-author Kate Tatham told Discovery News that the top 10 common medicines most likely to contain ingredients derived from animals are: aspirin, simvastatin, paracetamol, thyroxine, omeprazole, lansoprazole, salbutamol, ramipril, amlodipine and atorvastatin. Aside from aspirin, most of these are sold under snazzier brand names, so if you are curious or concerned about animal-based ingredients, be sure to read labels carefully and research drugs via the manufacturer’s website and other provided information.

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Estrogen is sometimes sourced from female hormones derived from pregnant mares’ urine, according to PETA. Horses and other animals are not killed for drug manufacturing, though, according to Patel. He said the ingredients are “likely to be from leftovers” of butchering for other purposes. In the United States, this likely means animals found in meat markets, such as cows and pigs. But in Central Asia, for example, horse meat is considered to be acceptable.

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Gelatin in drugs can come from fish, the researchers share. They add that many patients are unaware that commonly prescribed drugs often contain animal ingredients. “Our data suggest that it is likely that patients are unwittingly ingesting medications containing animal products with neither prescriber nor dispenser aware,” Patel and Tatham wrote. They call for improved drug labeling, mirroring the standards advised for food.

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There's a very good chance that some of the medicine in your home contains an animal-derived ingredient. The most frequently included animal-based ingredients in meds, according to a new study in the British Medical Journal, are lactose (often extracted from curdled cow’s milk), gelatin (frequently sourced from cows) and magnesium stearate, which can also come from a cow and is a magnesium salt containing stearic acid. A PETA fact sheet mentions that stearic acid additionally can come from dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters, but cows remain the primary source. “Lactose, the most common ingredient we found in medications, was largely made using the lining of young cow stomachs as part of the manufacturing process,” BMJ study co-author Kinesh Patel told Discovery News. Patel is a research fellow at St. Mark’s Hospital’s Wolfson Unit for Endoscopy in the U.K.

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A red pigment known as carmine or carminic acid can come from an insect called the cochineal (and the pigment is sometimes called cochineal). According to a report on Foodnet, the pharmaceutical industry uses cochineal to color pills and ointments. There are conflicting studies as to how such ingredients -- in very small amounts -- might affect human health.  A study conducted by J.B. Greig of the Food Standards Agency in London found that cochineal could be linked to asthma. Patel and Tatham, however, told Discovery News: “There are no specific health concerns associated with the ingestion of any of these (animal and insect derived) ingredients.”

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Some ointments contain ingredients derived from egg protein. These, and other ingredients, usually can be substituted with compounds from other sources. “The medicines we investigated could largely be made without animal-derived products,” Patel said. He added that the more commonly used gelatin and magnesium stearate inclusions now have vegetarian counterparts.

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The oil glands of sheep produce lanolin, found in many medicines and ointments. Those who are vegan or vegetarian try to avoid use of such animal products. The researchers further point out that religion, culture, economic status, environmental concerns, food intolerances and personal preferences also can influence whether a person wishes to consume an animal-derived ingredient.

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The enzyme lipase can be derived from juvenile sheep, aka lambs. Lipase is in some medicines treating digestion problems. PETA mentions that the enzyme can come “from the stomachs and tongue glands of calves, kids and lambs.”

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Shark liver oil, squalene, is in some vaccines and over-the-counter products, such as glucosamine (chondrontin). “Many of the companies are multinationals,” Patel said. Shark-based ingredients are thought to largely come from Asia, where a shark slaughterhouse was recently found in southeastern China. The organization WildLifeRisk found that the factory processes approximately 600 whale sharks and basking sharks each year.

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