The longstanding battle between humanity and microbes peaked after the discovery of penicillin. An onslaught of antibiotics and widespread implementation of hygienic medical practices drastically reduced mortality due to infection. However, in our fury against microbes, we may have become the authors of our own destruction.
Hospitals, the typical stronghold of hygiene and health, have served as the perfect medium for accelerated growth of multi-drug resistant pathogens – the cause of disease. In 2009, it was reported that more people died due to hospital-acquired infections than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined. In a statement by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, one group of pathogens – dubbed as ESKAPE – were highlighted as the main culprits of a growing epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections. These specific pathogens are resistant to all modern antibiotics, forcing physicians to resort to older forms of fighting infections.
Recent breakthroughs indicate that the answer to the threat of multi-drug resistant infections might be found in more ancient and natural therapies. A group of researchers at the University of British Columbia published an article last month documenting the bactericidal activity of Kisameet clay – a natural clay mineral. The natural clay deposit is found in the Heiltsuk First Nations territory, about 400km north of Vancouver on the mainland coastal line. There has been a documented history of the Heiltsuk First Nations using the clay as a traditional remedy for a range of ailments; however, this article is one of the first reports of more thorough investigation into its specific effects. The researchers found that the Kisameet clay is effective against 16 strains of ESKAPE pathogens, which is astounding given these pathogens’ notoriety for resistance against antibiotics. While these results are preliminary, they provide an exciting avenue for further research into developing the Kisameet clay as a potent clinical agent.
It is important to note the sensitive politics of environmental resource management, indigenous rights, and private corporate interests that will shape the progress of Kisameet clay as a clinical agent. The Kisameet clay deposit is located on traditional Heiltsuk First Nation territory, the Great Bear Rainforest, which was never included in treaties under the Federal Indian Act. The territory is marked by a history fraught with land rights negotiations between the Heiltsuk First Nation and the Province of British Columbia. As of now, it remains as unceded traditional territory under the jurisdiction of the Province of British Columbia as “Crown Lands”. Regarding the clay deposit itself, the rights to any mineral claims are owned by Kisameet Glacial Clay, a private corporation. Kisameet Glacial Clay supports the work of the research group at UBC, and would own any marketable products resulting from the clay product. The company states that it “has entered into a working agreement with members of the Heiltsuk First Nation” community, but the details of such an agreement are undisclosed. It is an unfortunate trend in medicine’s history for biotechnology companies to reap the benefits of commercialized traditional remedies, excluding local communities and indigenous peoples from the development process and its proceeds.
The Kisameet Clay provides the medical community a unique opportunity: an opportunity to combat dangerous infections and to set forth a new model of collaboration between stakeholders in the use of natural resources. This is an advancement to watch closely as it unfolds.
ESKAPE pathogens are responsible for the majority of hospital-acquired infections and resist most modern antibiotics. The development of a potent antibacterial agent from the Kisameet natural clay deposits will prevent unnecessary deaths of patients in hospital settings and provide the medical community with time to address the pressing issue of pathogens developing multi-drug resistance.