You've heard of donating bone marrow, sperm, blood and even breast milk. Now it's time to put poop on society's collective radar of altruistic donation opportunities. Even though it sounds too gross to be true, it's a very real practice that is credited with saving no small number of lives. Known in medical circles as fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), poop transplants are relatively newfangled treatments for potentially deadly, recurrent Clostridium difficile infections, or C. diff. Without donors, the treatments wouldn't be possible.
C. diff is characterized by persistent diarrhea that typically pops up after a person has taken antibiotics for another unrelated infection. It's also the most common hospital-acquired infection and is extremely expensive to treat. Scarily enough, some studies have reported an uptick in community-acquired C. diff cases, not involving people previously on antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data in 2015 that nearly half a million people in the U.S. alone were diagnosed with C. diff in the span of only one year. Of those, about 29,000 died within 30 days of diagnosis, more than 80 percent of whom were aged 65 and older.
"Many of these patients are not able to fight the infection with standard antibiotic therapies alone, so FMT can be an effective last-resort treatment. FMT has saved lives and is changing the standard of care for C. diff patients, reducing overall fatalities and, for many patients, restoring their health after months of serious illness," explains Carolyn Edelstein, executive director of OpenBiome, the first public stool bank in the U.S. "When standard treatments of antibiotics fail to work, FMT has been shown to cure infections 90 percent of the time."
The point of FMT is to introduce gut bacteria from a healthy donor into the gastrointestinal tract of a person suffering from disease thanks to diminished "good" bacteria. The procedure can be performed in a few different ways, but most commonly a solution of saline and donor stool is administered via colonoscopy. A recent clinical trial out of Canada, however, indicates that "poop pills" could be the future of FMT, as these capsules (which the patient swallows) are much easier and less invasive to administer, and could be simpler to provide to hospitals for use.