'Poop pills' cured Canadian woman of C. difficile

Growing research suggests using fecal matter might be the solution to combating bad bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
Dr. Thomas Louie, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, in his lab with stool pills in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
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It started off as a simple sinus infection. But after a round of antibiotics, Karen Shandro came down with C. difficile.  

The antibiotics she'd taken had done some damage to her gut, leaving her susceptible to a new infection. So when Shandro found out she was a candidate for a clinical trial, she said, "it was a no-brainer."

The experimental treatment known as fecal microbiota transplants (FMT) is a medicine aimed at combating bad bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The pills consist of frozen biological matter from feces, donated by a stranger.

"I personally had to take 59 pills. They just look like a large vitamin," said Shandro.

"They had no smell. They had no odour. They had no aftertaste."

Right after she took the pills, Shando said she crashed for five hours.

"Upon waking up I could literally say that I was starving. I had hunger pains that I hadn't experienced in a while."

Now Shandro says she's as healthy as she was before. "Maybe even healthier," she told The Current.

How does FMT work?

Dr. Tom Louie is known as a pioneer in fecal transplants. He was a co-author of the clinical trial Shandro took part in and he explains in her case, the antibiotics she first took reduced the number of good bacteria to eventually leave the patient susceptible to C Difficile.

"If I was a spokesperson for fecal bugs I would say that we're there to help you everyday. You don't know that we're there. We fill the gut up so that any bad bugs that come in we'll out-compete them," Dr. Louie said.

While most people who develop C. difficile will be cured by strong antibiotics, some fail treatment repeatedly. (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention)

That's not all that fecal bugs do to keep you healthy and protect you from bacteria that cause disease.

He listed fecal bugs also stimulate the immune system, provide Vitamins, such as Vitamin K to stop bleeding, and even help with memory.

"So we're natural partners. We're a part of you," fecal bug spokesperson Dr. Louie added.

Meet the Robo-Gut

Emma Allen-Vercoe is also optimistic about the healing potential of human feces. The University of Guelph microbiologist also works with donated material, her work may someday eliminate the need for human donors.

Emma Allen-Vercoe has been growing microbes from human feces in an effort to create communities of bugs that will treat everything from C. diff, colon cancer, and diabetes, to autism and depression. (Martin Schwalbe/University of Guelph)

Allen-Vercoe has created The Poopy Lab that cultures microbes from the human gut as separate entities, known as pure culture.

"Which is something that's a little difficult to do because traditional microbiology doesn't lend itself very well to the culture of these microbes. A lot them are very difficult to grow," she explained.

The lab houses a robo-gut — a contraption to culture entire microbial ecosystems.

"What we've learned over the years is that a lot of these microbes, one of the reasons that they don't like to grow on their own is because they meet their friends. And so the first thing that I did in my lab is set up a system that allowed them to grow together as a community. And that in fact allows most of the microbes from the human gut to grow in the lab."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Jessica Linzey.

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