A global effort is under way to find effective treatments for deadly hospital-acquired infections, with many such dangerous bacteria proving worryingly resistant to antibiotics. Now, help may have been found in the most unlikely of places, with researchers finding positive results when studying an old folk remedy – natural Canadian clay.

Known as Kisameet clay, the resource has been used by centuries by the indigenous people on the central coast of British Columbia, treating various medical problems from skin ailments to internal infections. It was also successfully used by doctors in Vancouver in the 1940s to treat numerous conditions, from burns to ulcerative colitis, but after the rise of antibiotics, the clay remedy was set aside.

Now, with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria becoming a serious concern for global health, a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver have turned back to the old natural remedy to see if it might help us fight the new threat.

They focused their research on a selection of bacteria known as the ESKAPE group. It includes pathogens such as MRSA, and those that cause dangerous conditions like pneumonia and septicemia. It's particularly important to find new ways of tackling these bacteria, as they're extremely difficult to treat, being resistant to most current antibiotics.

The team took a selection of 16 different bacteria, picking strains that were prolific in local hospitals, and tested them in a diluted suspension of the clay. The bacteria were left to interact with the clay for between 24 and 48 hours.

When the researchers observed the mix after that time, they found that the clay had successfully killed off all 16 strains, immediately showing that it plays host to significant antibacterial abilities. They also tested water and solvent-based clay extracts, observing similar antibacterial effects.

While these early tests results are extremely promising, the researchers have yet to identify the exact mechanisms by which the clay is able to kill the bacteria. Kisameet clay is complex, consisting of different minerals, and with an advanced microbial community. It's possible that the unique mix of chemical, physical and microbial properties is what allows for the antimicrobial activity.

The researchers plan to test the clay on laboratory animals with bacterial infections, and hope to eventually progress to human trials. In the long run, the goal is to isolate what causes the clay's bacteria killing abilities, harnessing that knowledge to create an all-new antibiotic.

The findings of the study are published online in the journal mBio.