Our love affair with antibiotics is catching up with us. Our overuse of these drugs has encouraged infectious microbes to develop resistance to their killing power. Whether or not you not believe in the evolution of humans or lesser animals, it sure takes place at the microbial level.
The result – Every year two million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria that didn’t exist a few decades ago.1
And many of those people die.
That’s why, if you pick up an antibiotic-resistant infection – an illness that no drug can stop – your life may be in serious danger.
One of the most deadly of these infections is caused by Clostridium difficile (C. diff) bacteria.
While C. diff is a normal inhabitant of the intestines that usually doesn’t cause problems, taking antibiotics for an extended time for another illness can eliminate the friendly bacteria in the digestive tract that usually keep C diff under control.
The result: C. diff can cause life-threatening diarrhea while releasing toxins that cause a condition called toxic megacolon. The colon can swell, cause extreme pain, shock and fever.
Now comes an effective new treatment – but you may not like the smell of it!
C. diff infections strike about 500,00 people a year in the US and kill some 29,000 within about one month after they are diagnosed with the disease.
Ironically, treatment with antibiotics has been both the cause and the main treatment for C diff – at a cost to the American healthcare system of about $4 billion a year.
But what has turned out to be the best treatment for this deadly problem?
Something that at first mention sounds awfully unappealing – a fecal transplant. That’s right. Transplanting the poop from a healthy person’s intestinal tract to the digestive tract of someone with C. diff has become the most effective therapy. The transplanted fecal matter transfers beneficial intestinal bacteria that help the recipient fight off C. diff.
Consider the case of a 66-year-old man with C. diff who was in intensive care unit at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego.2 His arms and legs were paralyzed. He was on a ventilator and was fed with a feeding tube. He was treated with antibiotics that kept the microbe temporarily in check.
But each time his doctors stopped giving him drugs, it returned. Added to that, he was infected with a frightening number of other pathogens that were drug-resistant and couldn’t be wiped out with pharmaceuticals.
Using Bacteria to Fight Bacteria
The man’s sister volunteered to be a donor for a fecal transplant.
After the transplant was performed — and without any further antibiotics — the C. diff cleared up. All of the patient’s other drug-resistant infections got better, too. And although one infection did eventually get back into his urinary tract, the other infections never returned.
“The fecal microbiota transplant was successful in replenishing the patient’s gut flora (probiotic bacteria) and stopping the releases of Clostridium difficile,” says one his doctors, Nancy Crum-Cianflone. “Intriguingly, we additionally found that by letting the normal bacteria replenish his gastrointestinal tract, the resistant bacteria which had plagued him up to that point disappeared from his body.”
The cure rate of fecal transplants in cases of C diff is now about 90 percent – a game changer in the battle against this infection.
But it’s still kind of a mystery about what are the most effective bacteria in transplants that work the magic that conquers C diff.
A company in Massachusetts called Seres Therapeutics was recently trying to develop a standardized pill that incorporated the bacteria researchers thought were necessary to treat C diff. But their standardized formula failed decisively.3
But what we do know is this: The abundance of beneficial probiotic bacteria that live in the gut (about 100 trillion cells) are crucial for keeping us healthy. Your immune system can’t fight illness without them.
As explained by Michael Fischbach, a biochemist with the University of California: “We used to think the immune system had this fairly straightforward job. All bacteria were clearly ‘nonself,’ so simply had to be recognized and dealt with. But the job of the immune system now appears to be far more nuanced and complex. It has to learn to consider our mutualists (probiotic bacteria) as self too. In the future we won’t even call it the immune system, but the microbial interaction system.” 4
There may be wondrous cures hidden in our probiotic bacteria, and there have been sporadic reports of remarkable side effects in people who have had fecal transplants. At least two people have regrown their hair after being bald. Some folks have lost weight unexpectedly. Still others report escaping depression.
Which bacteria are responsible for these effects? No one knows. But now the American Gastroenterological Association, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, is setting up a fecal transplant registry to track the long-term results of these transplants.
If someone’s donation produces an important and unexpected effect in someone else, researchers will try to investigate which microorganisms may be the key to these special effects.
Though the benefits of fecal transplants are remarkable, the truth is that this therapy is not a new development. Fecal transplants were actually used by ancient Chinese healers and were described in a fourth century manuscript. In the 16th century, doctors who used this technique termed it “yellow soup.”
So, once again, modern researchers are looking closely at a traditional treatment. And, once again, they are discovering extraordinary benefits. Just a word of caution, though: Don’t try this at home. I hope it’s obvious that other peoples’ feces could contain all kinds of parasites – good and bad – that would not be healthy for a recipient.
There may be naturopaths or integrative M.D.s who can safely administer a fecal transplant – I’ve heard of search — but I don’t have names to whom I can refer readers. And the mainstream research described above is taking place under lab and hospital conditions where the patients are kept under careful observation.