Life-Saving Poop, Now in Pill Form

Ingesting fecal material is an excellent way to pick up some pretty nasty diseases, like cholera, typhoid fever (as I can personally attest), and a variety of other diarrhea-causing agents that, together, kill 800,000 children five years or younger each year. That’s 2,200 child deaths each day. It’s horrifying.

But paradoxically, ingesting cleaned, filtered, and safe fecal material can save lives, too.

Fecal bacteria sample

(via)

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have created a pill containing filtered fecal material that successfully treated 19 of 20 patients with Clostridium difficile, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

It’s worth repeating: this is a poop pill. And it holds the potential to save tens of thousands of lives every year. 

Though the study was quite small, it shows that fecal transplants – an extremely effective but tedious and labor-intensive procedure – can be accomplished using two or three days’ worth of simple-to-ingest pills. If larger clinical trials are successful, this will be a game-changing therapy.

Clostridium difficile, or c. diff, is a disease that is resistant to many antibiotics and kills 14,000 Americans each year. I wrote a lot about it for a Project Millennialpost last year, but the short version is that c. diff is a hospital-acquired infection that becomes problematic once a patient’s microbiome is altered – often by antibiotics that kill many types of bacteria but spare c diff.  Unconstrained by the “good” bacteria (yes, I’m simplifying here), c. diff takes over the microbiome, causing diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and sometimes septicemia.

Treating a c. diff exacerbation with the traditional antibiotic regime can take weeks (often in an inpatient setting) and isn’t all that effective. Fecal transplants, by contrast, lead to quick recovery and are very effective; they don’t actually wipe out c. diff, but in restoring microbiome homeostasis they “tamp it down.” And the procedure works.

More trials need to be completed to ensure that a fecal transplant in pill form is as safe and effective as early results indicate.  If the trials are successful, this therapy will be an absolute medical game-changer.

In addition to being easier to carry out, a fecal transplant in pill form will mitigate the yuck factor (even if it doesn’t entirely get rid of it). The pill fecal transplant works in a matter of days and would likely be done on an outpatient basis, which would save thousands of dollars per patient and free up hospital beds for other patients.  And finally, it bears repeating that the therapy works.

Intriguingly, this modest success opens up the possibility of pill fecal transplants for other ends, like treating depressing and losing weight. Of course, much more research needs to be done in these areas, but the prospect of probiotic therapy for various illnesses would be significant.

Isn’t science cool? Scientists and doctors have managed to turn one of Death’s surest weapons against it, if only a little.

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