The bacteria Clostridium difficile is pretty terrifying — if it infects a person’s gut, it can cause severe diarrhea, bloating, and potentially death. In the U.S. alone, it hospitalizes nearly 250,000 people and kills at least 14,000 people each year. Why not just fight it with antibiotics, like we use to fight other bacterial infections? Well, antibiotics is actually part of how C. difficile infections get started.
A lot of people normally have a small amount of C. difficile in their gut, and when a person takes broad-spectrum antibiotics, this can kill most of the gut’s bacteria except for antibiotic-resistant C. difficile bacteria, which can then grow and take over. (Just one more reason to not take antibiotics when they’re not really needed!) It is a particularly big problem in hospitals, where antibiotic-resistant C. difficile can spread between patients who are on antibiotics. So how are we to fight antibitioc-resistant C. difficile if our antibiotics don’t help? The answer appears to be fecal transplants… and fecal banks.
It turns out that C. difficile infections are pretty effectively treated using fecal transplants that are a mixture of filtered bacteria from a healthy person’s guts and fecal pills that similarly deliver beneficial gut microbes but in a gelatin capsule. For example, in a study published at the end of last year, all 14 patients treated with fecal transplants recovered from their C. difficile infections within 2 to 3 days. Other studies have shown similarly positive results.
But despite the fact that fecal transplants seem to work well for treating potentially fatal C. difficile infections, it’s actually been difficult for patients to get healthy donor fecal material for transplants. This is why earlier this year the world’s first fecal bank, called OpenBiome, opened up. The bank works with doctors to help make it easier for patients to get the transplants they desperately need.
So if you’re a healthy individual, there’s now one more biological “tissue” you may want to consider donating to others who are less fortunate than you!
For further reading:
- Yang Song et al.’s article “Microbiota Dynamics in Patients treated with fecal Microbiota Transplantation for Recurrent Clostridium difficile Infection” in PLOSONE
- Abby Olena’s article “Fecal Pills”
- Elizabeth Pennisi’s article “Using Gut Bacteria to Fight Diarrhea” in Science
- Tracy Vence’s article “Tracking Fecal Transplants”
- Mark B. Smith, Colleen Kelly, and Eric J. Alm’s article “Policy: How to regulate faecal transplants” in Nature
- OpenBiom’s website
- Teisha J. Rowland’s articles “The Importance of ‘The Little Guys:’ Our Gut Microbiome” and “Fighting Antibiotic Resistance”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine