Article Originally Featured on NationalGeographic.com
Written by: Carl Zimmer
At a microbiology conference, a scientist was giving a lecture about the microbiomeâ€“the microbes that live harmlessly inside of us. She described one unusual case she was involved in where a doctor namedÂ Alexander KhorutsÂ used the microbiome to save a patientâ€™s life. The patient had taken antibiotics for a lung infection. While the drugs cleared that infection, they Â also disrupted the ecology of her gut, allowing a life-threatening species of bacteria calledÂ Clostridium difficileÂ to take over. The pathogen was causing horrific levels of diarrhea. Khoruts couldnâ€™t stop it, because it was resistant to every antibiotic he tried.
So Khoruts decided to use an obscure method: the fecal transplant. He took some stool from the patientâ€™s husband, mixed it with water, and delivered it to her large intestines like a suppository. In a matter of days she was recovering.
Since I first heard about these transplants in 2010, theyâ€™ve hit the big time. Last year, a team of Danish and Finnish doctors reportedÂ clinical trialsÂ in which the transplants 94 percent effective againstÂ C. difficile. It appears that some species in the transplant from a healthy gut will grow quickly and outcompete the pathogen, returning a sick personâ€™s intestines to its former state. Scientists have been exploring using fecal transplants for other disorders of the gut, along with conditions beyond the gut, such as diabetes and obesity.
But there areÂ many obstaclesÂ left to putting fecal transplants into widespread practice. For one thing, the FDA is very cautious with this kind of living medicine. For another thing, fecal transplants are conceptually crude. Doctors simply give a patient a random sample of hundreds of different species from a healthy personâ€™s gut, assuming that at least some of them will restore the patient to health. When the patients get better, they canâ€™t say precisely why.
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