Friday, November 6, 2015

The Poop's in the Mail

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a terrible way to die. It's an antibiotic-resistant gut bug that causes painful diarrhea, fever and kidney failure. Almost half a million Americans are diagnosed with C. diff a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in a February press release. Of those people, around 29,000 die within 30 days of diagnosis.

To put those numbers into perspective, here are a few more. In 2013, 32,719 people were killed in car crashes in the U.S., according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Every year, according to the CDC, 33,000 people are killed by guns in the U.S. This year, about 40,000 women in the U.S. are expected to die from breast cancer.

The intestinal infection comes from a spore-forming bacteria that neither soap nor alcohol can effectively kill and can live on surfaces for months. Though it's largely preventable with proper hygiene, it's usually spread in hospitals and nursing homes.

C. diff is generally treated in two ways: antibiotics and fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), also known as a fecal transplant — the "microbial equivalent of a blood transfusion," according to MinuteEarth. Doctors take a fecal sample from a healthy person and transplant it into the patient's intestines through a colonoscopy, enema or nasoenteric tube, which goes up the nose and down into the stomach. FMT is highly effective in treating C. diff cases when antibiotics fail, but it's an invasive procedure and is considered an experimental treatment. Currently, it's used only on patients for whom antibiotics have proven ineffective.

Now there's a much easier cure for this deadly infection: the poop pill.

On Oct. 28, OpenBiome announced that it had started production of the first fecal transplant pill.

Even though FMT has been extremely successful for treating C. diff, it's still been difficult to make these transplants happen for people. That difficulty is what inspired Mark Smith to start OpenBiome, the world's first poop bank.

Since 2013, the Boston-based lab has been collecting healthy fecal matter, packaging it and sending it out to doctors around the world. Since then, OpenBiome has been involved in more than 7,500 treatments in roughly 460 hospitals, Carolyn Edelstein, OpenBiome's director of policy and global partnerships, told Mic.

"Despite the underlying simplicity and efficacy of FMT, prior to OpenBiome, it had become difficult for clinicians to offer FMT at a scale that matched patient needs because of the challenges of identifying and screening donors and processing stool material," OpenBiome's website says.

C. diff has traditionally been treated with antibiotics, and around 80% of C. diff patients will be cured by antibiotics, according to OpenBiome's clinical primer.

A study performed from 2008 to 2013 by the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam tested the efficacy of FMT and antibiotics to treat C. diff. Researchers found that fecal transplants were far much more effective than antibiotics — so conclusively that they stopped the study early. Ninety-four percent of the participants who received FMT as treatment were cured, compared to 31% and 23% cured by different antibiotics. (...)

FMT is arguably the best alternative to antibiotic treatment for infections like C. diff. It's actually a little odd that C. diff is treated with antibiotics, because "almost all cases of C. diff are associated with antibiotic use," Smith told Mic.

"Imagine that there were terrorists on the loose in New York City, and we decided the way to deal with it was nuking New York." Smith said. "That's what antibiotics are like. C. diff is like a sleeper cell; it's waiting for a disturbance caused by antibiotics."

by Alexis Kleinman, Mic |  Read more:
Image: Openbiome