Article Originally Featured on NationalGeographic.com
Written by: Carl Zimmer
At a microbiology conference, a scientist was giving a lecture about the microbiome–the microbes that live harmlessly inside of us. She described one unusual case she was involved in where a doctor named Alexander Khoruts used the microbiome to save a patient’s life. The patient had taken antibiotics for a lung infection. While the drugs cleared that infection, they also disrupted the ecology of her gut, allowing a life-threatening species of bacteria called Clostridium difficile to take over. The pathogen was causing horrific levels of diarrhea. Khoruts couldn’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 patient’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, they’ve hit the big time. Last year, a team of Danish and Finnish doctors reported clinical trials in which the transplants 94 percent effective against C. difficile. It appears that some species in the transplant from a healthy gut will grow quickly and outcompete the pathogen, returning a sick person’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 are many obstacles 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 person’s gut, assuming that at least some of them will restore the patient to health. When the patients get better, they can’t say precisely why.
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