C. difficile had Meg Newman’s number; it had struck her 18 different times beginning in 1985. The bacterial infection takes over the gut bringing explosive diarrhea, dehydration, weight loss, and at its worst depletes blood platelets. It causes nearly 30,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.
Meg knew these statistics not just from personal experience but also because she was a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital. Antibiotics had sometimes helped to treat the infection, but it never quite seemed to go away. Now, “It felt like part of my colon was sort of sliding off as I had the bowel movement.” On her worst day she counted 33 bowel movements. It was 2005 and she knew she was at the end of her rope.
Medical training had taught Meg to look at the data. So when antibiotics failed, she searched the literature for other options. One was a seemingly off-the-wall treatment called fecal transplants, which essentially gives poop from a healthy person to one who is sick.
Its roots stretch back to “yellow soup” used to treat dysentery in China nearly two thousand years ago, in which ancient Chinese treaters would combine stool with liquid, mash it up, and administer it. The approach also is commonly used in veterinary medicine today. However, there were only about three papers on its use in humans in the medical literature at that time, she recalls. Still, the logic of the intervention appealed to her.
The gut microbiome as a concept and even a word were not widely known fifteen years ago. But the idea that the microbial community in her gut was in disarray, and a transplant of organisms from a healthy gut might help restore a more normal ecology made sense. And besides, the failure of standard medicine left her few options.
Meg spoke with a colleague, gastroenterologist Neil Stollman, about a possible fecal microbial transplant (FMT). Only a handful of doctors in the U.S. had ever done the procedure; Stollman had tried it just once before. After conversation with Newman, he agreed to do it.
They decided on Meg’s partner Sherry as the donor. “I try very hard to use intimate sexual partners as the donor,” explains Stollman. The reason is to reduce disease risk: “The logic there is pretty straightforward. If you have unprotected sex with this individual, in a monogamous way for a period of time, you have assumed pretty much any infectious risk,” like hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis, he says. Other donors would be screened using the same criteria used to screen blood donations, plus screening for parasites that can live in stool but not blood.
Martini aficionados fall into two camps, fans of shaken or stirred. In the early days the options for producing of fecal transplants were a blender or hand shaken. Stollman took the hands-on approach, mixing Sherry’s fecal donation with saline to create “a milkshake in essence.” He filtered it several times through gauze to get out the lumps.
Then he inserted a colonoscope, a long flexible tube, through the anus into Meg’s colon. Generally a camera goes through the tube to look for polyps and cancers, while other tools can snip off polyps and retrieve tissue samples. Today he used it to insert the fecal “milkshake” as high up the colon as he could go. Imodium and bed rest were the final pieces. It works about 90 percent of the time today.
Meg went home with fingers crossed. “And within about two weeks things just slowed down; the diarrhea just stopped. I felt better so my appetite was better.” The tide had turned, though it would take months to slowly repair the toll taken on her body from disease and antibiotics.
Then in 2011 another serious medical challenge required heavy use of antibiotics and Meg’s C. difficile came roaring back; she needed a second FMT. Sherry had a bad sinus infection and had been on antibiotics, so that ruled her out as a donor. Red, Meg’s godson, volunteered. He was twenty-one and had little or no exposure to antibiotics, which can harm friendly bacteria living in the gut.
“I was one sick puppy as that point,” Meg recalls, “and literally three days after the transplant [from Red] I was doing pretty well, day four even better. It was unbelievable.” It illustrated that donors are not the same, and that while an intimate partner may be the safest option, it also may not be the most efficacious donation in terms of providing missing parts of the microbial ecosystem.
By then, FMTs were starting to come out of the shadows as more than just a medical oddity. One gigantic milestone in changing perceptions was a Dutch study on using the procedure to treat C. difficile that was published in January 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine. “That was the first trial where people said, look this isn’t voodoo. This wasn’t made up; it really worked,” says Colleen Kelly, another pioneer in using FMTs to treat C. difficile and a researcher at Brown University. A single dose was successful more than 80 percent of the time in resolving disease in patients who had failed multiple regimens of antibiotics.
Charlatans pounced on the growing interest in the microbiome, promoting FMT as a cure for all sorts of ailments for which there was no scientific evidence. The FDA stepped in, announcing it would regulate the procedure as a drug, and essentially banned use of FMTs until it wrote regulations. But the outcry from physicians and patients was so great it was forced to retreat and has allowed continued use in treating C. difficile albeit on an interim regulatory basis that has continued since 2013.
Another major change was the emergence of stool banks, modeled on blood banks. The most widely know is OpenBiome, established in 2012 as a nonprofit by young researchers at Harvard and MIT. It aimed to standardize donation of stool and screening for disease, and package them in frozen form for colonoscopic delivery, or pill form. It greatly simplified the process and more doctors became willing to use FMTs to treat C. difficile. Today, some gastroenterologists specialize in administering the transplants as a feature of their practice.
To be sure, there have been some setbacks, including a transplant between family members where the recipient became obese, likely in part because of bacteria in the material she received. The same thing has occurred in studies in mice. And last year, an elderly man died from a toxic strain of E. coli that was in material provided by a stool bank. That caused the FDA to add that pathogen to the list of those one must screen for in products designed for use as fecal transplants.
Cost remains an issue. OpenBiome charges $1500-$2000 per transplant dose, depending on whether a frozen or pill form of the product is used. And that is likely to go up as the FDA increases the number of diseases that must be screened for, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, which is present in feces and likely can be transmitted through feces. Most insurance companies do not cover FMTs because no product has been formally approved for use by the FDA.
One of the greatest treatment challenges is making the correct diagnosis, says physician Robin Patel, who initially treated patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota but now spends most of her time there developing new diagnostics. Many things can cause diarrhea and the simple presence of the organism does not mean that C. difficile is causing it. In addition, many people are colonized with the bug but never develop symptoms of the disease.
Patel used the expensive tool of whole genome sequencing to look in great detail at C. difficile in patients who were treated with antibiotics for the infection and had recurrent diarrhea. “Some of them, as you might predict, were getting their symptoms with the same exact strain [of C. difficile] but others were not, it was a different strain,” suggesting that they had been reinfected.
If it is a different strain, you might want to try antibiotics, she says, but if the same strain is present, then you might want to try a different approach such as FMT. Whole genome sequencing is still too slow and expensive to use in regularly treating patients today, but Patel hopes to develop a rapid, cost-effective test to help doctors make those types of decisions.
Biotech companies are trying to develop alternatives to poop as a source for transplant to treat C. difficile. They are picking and choosing different bacteria that they can grow and then combine into a product, to varying degrees of success, but none have yet crossed the finish line of FDA approval.
The FDA would like such a product because it is used to dealing with small molecule drugs that are standardized and produced in batches. Companies are pursing it because, as Kelly says, they are like sharks “smelling money in the water.” Approval of such a product might cause the FDA to shut down existing stool banks that now exist in a regulatory limbo, leaving the company with a monopoly of exclusive rights to the treatment.
Back when Meg received her first fecal transplant, the procedure was so obscure that the guidelines for treating C. difficile put out by the American College of Gastroenterology didn’t even mention FMT. The procedure crept into the 2013 revision of those guidelines as a treatment of last resort. Guidance under review for release later this year or early next year will ease use further but stop short of making it a first option.
Stollman imagines a future holy grail in treating C. difficile: “You give me a stool specimen and I run it through a scanner that tells me you have too much of this and too little of that. I have a sense of what normal [microbial composition of the gut] should be and add some of this and subtract some of that. Maybe I even give you some antibiotics to get rid of some of the bad guys, give you some probiotics. I think it is going to be targeted, even custom-made.”
His complete vision for treating C. difficile won’t arrive tomorrow, but given how rapidly FMTs have become part of medicine, it is likely to arrive in pieces and more quickly than one might think.
About five years ago Meg discovered she had an antibody deficiency that contributed to her health problems, including vulnerability to C. difficile. She began supplementation with immunoglobulin and “that has made a huge difference in my health. It is just unbelievable how much better I am.” She is grateful that fecal transplants gave her the time to figure that out. She believes “there’s every reason to consider it [FMT] as a first-line treatment and do the studies, ASAP.”