Timothy D. Phillips began his Translational Impact Award Lecture, titled “Ancient Medicine for the Mitigation of Aflatoxin Exposures,” with the sobering statistic that more than one billion people and animals are hungry and undernourished globally. His research into mycotoxins is aimed at helping address this issue. This presentation was delivered on March 26, 2014 at the Society of Toxicology (SOT) 53rd Annual Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona.
Mycotoxins, toxic metabolites of fungi, are a long-standing problem in food, forming in places of high humidity and warm temperatures. Aflatoxin B is the most studied of the mycotoxins and has been found to be a co-factor for hepatocellular carcinoma. It is also hepatotoxic, immunotoxic, and antinutritional.
The people most vulnerable to aflatoxin exposure are the young and poorest people, and climate change and drought are expected to exacerbate the problem. Humans, though, aren’t the only ones at risk, as animals exposed to aflatoxin suffer from growth retardation, affecting the animal industry.
Dr. Phillips discussed how clays have been used by ancient cultures for the treatment of diarrhea, wound healing, and skin infections, while also being used as binding agents for toxins. Studying one of these clays, dioctahedral smectite clay, he discovered it can tightly bind aflatoxin with more than 90 percent of aflatoxin being bound in the interlayer of dioctahedral smectite clay. Testing the clay further, Dr. Phillips found no adverse health effects from the consumption of the clay and strong evidence for specificity in animals, finding that dioctahedral smectite clay may protect animals against aflatoxicosis.
Next, Dr. Phillips and his team began clinical trials on humans, testing a form of dioctahedral smectite clay that was developed for human consumption called NovaSilTM . A US-based Phase I trial showed no significant differences in hemotology, liver, and kidney interaction, among other positive results. A Phase II trial in Ghana confirmed the safety and efficacy of NovaSil.
Researchers are currently working on how to include the clay in maize meal—one of the most common food ingredients in developing nations—and how to get it into nutritional supplements provided to malnourished infants and children. This is actually one of the main aims of Dr. Phillips' research: to reduce dietary aflatoxin exposure to improve nutrition and food safety in children. Translational impacts, indeed.