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Antibacterial Clay Therapies


For the academic year 2019-20, I will be Co-PI (along with Gary Sharples from Biosciences) on an interdisciplinary project funded by the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at Durham. The project looks at antibacterial clay therapies, which are becoming increasingly important in the context of the current antimicrobial resistance (AMR) crisis.

It’s predicted by the British government that AMR will overtake cancer as the leading cause of death in the next 30 years. Resistance to existing antimicrobial therapies is an increasing global threat to the treatment of infectious diseases. Few novel drugs have been discovered in recent years to combat increasingly resistant bacteria and history has shown that evolution of resistance is inevitable. As such, new innovative approaches to treating bacterial conditions are needed to address this threat to health.

That’s where clay comes in!

We know from archaeological work that humans have been using clays as antimicrobial therapeutic agents for thousands of years, and Aristotle, Galen Avicenna all espoused the healing benefits of clay. Anthropological work has shown us that populations in Africa and Asia also routinely use clay for the treatment of gastrointestinal problems and wound infections. In the contemporary Western context, clays with antibacterial efficacy offer significant potential in combatting the rise in AMR.

Against this backdrop, the project will do two things:

Firstly, the natural scientists on the project will investigate the composition and antibacterial effects of clays used in healing to go some way to determining the antibacterial action of these clays.

Secondly, I will look to understand the everyday uses, and social and cultural significance of medicinal clays globally. This will involve understanding how medicinal clay has been analysed by social scientists previously, what conceptual frameworks we have at our disposal to theorise medicinal clay, and how medicinal uses of clay has been characterised by modern western medicine.

My initial work has suggested that clay has been relatively neglected by sociology. While human geography, medical anthropology, and social medicine have focused on the medicinal consumption and use of clay, sociology has been conspicuous by its absence in contributing to this research area.

Yet clay is a fascinating sociological artefact occupying a unique and ambiguous position in our contemporary healthcare landscape. On the one hand, clay is increasingly mainstream because of its growing prominence in everyday beauty products and because scientists are turning their attention to its antibiotic properties. But, on the other hand, medicinal clay is quite rare in the west, can be highly stigmatized and sits outside of normative medicinal practices.

The IAS project provides a great opportunity to dig into this ambiguity further and work with colleagues from Biosciences, Anthropology, Earth Sciences, and Chemistry on a truly interdisciplinary project. I will be sure to update about the progress of the project but also see the project website: https://www.dur.ac.uk/ias/1920projects/sharples/

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