Though childish songs make crude jokes, there’s nothing funny about diarrhea. Aside from the painful, twisting feeling in your guts, there’s just something psychologically upsetting about losing control of your bowels. It’s embarrassing. It’s disgusting. And we’ve all been there.
But for many, diarrhea is more than a shameful stain to be washed away in an impromptu laundry load; in the US alone, more than 500,000 suffer and 15,000 die every year from uncontrollable diarrhea caused by infection with Clostridium difficile. These rod-shaped bacteria are commonly found in the environment and even in our bodies, but have lately become a major concern in hospitals where antibiotics leave patients without the natural flora that protect their bodies. When C. difficile populations grow unchecked, toxins produced by the bacteria cause inflammation and cell death, leading to the explosive symptoms that, if not controlled, can lead to severe dehydration, kidney failure, holes in the intestines and death. Patients already weakened by other illnesses are particularly at risk of succumbing. Epidemics of C. difficile have become such a serious problem that the infection now rivals the superbug MRSA as one of the top emerging disease threats.
With more and more strains of C. difficile becoming resistant to antibiotics, doctors have had to find creative ways to treat the infection. One of the most promising (if not revolting) treatments that has been tested in recent years is called fecal bacteriotherapy or ‘stool transplant’, which involves taking donor poop from a healthy patient and inserting it into the gut of an infected one as a form of probiotics, seeking to replace the protective flora. I wish I was kidding. The procedure involves collecting crap from a close relative that has been screened for other microbial pathogens, mixing it with saline or milk until it reaches the right consistency, and then placing it directly in the patient’s digestive system through a tube inserted either up the anus or down from their mouths. Though it might sound gross, the dose of healthy, helpful bacteria has shown to be very effective.
Of course, most patients aren’t exactly thrilled with the suggestion of shoving someone else’s bowel movements up their rectums or down their throats. Now, University of Guelph researchers have developed a more sanitary way of achieving the same results: synthetic poop.
The researchers created fake feces, aptly named RePOOPulate, after careful examination of bacterial colonies grown from the stool of healthy volunteers. Once the right ratio of species was determined, 33 different bacteria were grown in a robotic intestine simulator affectionately called Robo-gut to create a ‘super-probiotic’ stool substitute. According to the scientists, the bacterial mixture is much more palatable than what it mimics, and smells significantly better. Two patients treated with RePOOPulate showed marked improvement after three days, remaining C. difficile-free months after treatment. Tests of their intestinal flora showed that the fake crap successfully introduced beneficial bacteria to the patients’ guts.
It’s hard to say exactly how effective the new treatment is off of such a small test, but the results are very promising. Because scientists can control the bacterial mixture in RePOOPulate, there is less risk of introducing potentially harmful bacteria than with regular stool transplants, and the treatment can be tweaked to meet the needs of different patients. This proof-of-concept paper opens the doors for future testing. In time, RePOOPulate may prove a safe and effective treatment for C. difficile infection, as well as other gut diseases caused by the imbalance of beneficial bacteria like inflammatory bowel disease.
Citation: Petrof E.O., Gloor G.B., Vanner S.J., Weese S.J., Carter D., Daigneault M.C., Brown E.M., Schroeter K. & Allen-Vercoe E. (2013). Stool substitute transplant therapy for the eradication of Clostridium difficile infection: ‘RePOOPulating’ the gut, Microbiome, 1 (1) 3. DOI: 10.1186/2049-2618-1-3