Medical Discovery News
By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
 
Antibiotic resistance among disease-causing bacteria is a growing and dangerous problem. Bacteria resistant to one or more antibiotics, like staph and strep, are approaching catastrophic levels. Bacteria so resistant to common antibiotics that few if any drugs are able to treat them have been dubbed superbugs. One widely feared bacterium, called Clostridium difficile or C. diff for short, causes intestinal disease so severe that it can become life-threatening. It kills nearly 15,000 Americans every year, mostly the elderly. Super-resistant forms of this microbe are almost impossible to treat with antibiotics.

This bacterium produces a powerful toxin that destroys intestinal cells and can rupture small blood vessels. It also causes abnormal intestinal behavior, mainly excess water that produces diarrhea. It’s an unpleasant and painful prospect for those infected with C. diff.

Roughly 5 to 15 percent of the population carries this bacterium in their digestive system naturally, but it is kept in check by the rest of the bacterial population. But an underlying disease, antibiotics, another infection, or chemotherapy can throw bacterial populations out of balance, allowing C. diff to expand into an infection. And a super-resistant version of C. diff can be a real problem.

As gross as it may sound, fecal transplants are getting lots of attention as an option for C. diff infections. First tried in the late 1950s, the rationale for this approach is that the disease occurs because the bacterial populations are disrupted, so providing a source of normal bacteria restores the ecology of the intestine and prevents C. diff from growing.

Where exactly does one find fecal matter for such a transplant? It’s not as if anyone wants to ask family or friends to share their poop. Actually, there are major regulatory obstacles for fecal transplants. For instance, the fecal source must test negative for disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites. Basically, it’s not something anyone can just buy at your health food store or on Amazon.

So a group of enterprising graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who observed a friend’s struggle with C. diff formed a company to distribute safe, certified fecal matter for transplant. OpenBiome collects, tests and distributes fecal matter like a blood bank distributes blood. Samples are certified by Food and Drug Administration procedures, which cost about $3,000. Then they are frozen at super-cold temperatures (-112 degrees) and shipped to hospitals and physicians. Currently, the company operates as a nonprofit and only collects a shipping and processing fee for transplant material.

We already know that our normal bacterial systems, which together make up our microbiome, help protect us from skin, urogenital and oral diseases. Changes in our microbiome may also contribute to an underlying disease like diabetes. There is still much to be discovered about these organisms that call our bodies home, especially since we house 10 times more microbes than our own cells!

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.