It sounds medieval, but more and more people believe we're at the forefront of a revolutionary new kind of medical treatment.
If his four-year-old daughter gets sick again, Chris Gorski will take a drastic step. He will collect some of his own stool, strain it, and then transfer it into his daughter's body. This procedure -- known as a fecal transplant -- has been shown to help people like Chris's daughter Maya. Meanwhile, other patients and scientists hope that this bizarre transplant might work as medicine for a range of diseases, from asthma to MS.
Last spring, Maya developed c. difficile, a bacterial gut infection that can cause dangerous diarrhea. "She caught it after taking high doses of antibiotics," Gorski said. Maya still suffers from bouts of diarrhea, and Gorski worries that the infection will destroy the lining of her intestines and affect her for the rest of her life.
In desperation, Gorski scoured the Internet for other cures. That's how he learned about a two-year-old girl -- very much like his daughter -- who had been healed by a fecal transplant at Massachusetts General Hospital. The doctors collected feces from the girl's father, and they then transplanted his feces into the child's intestines following a bowel-cleansing routine. The "good bacteria" from the healthy father took root in the girl's body and repaired her gastrointestinal tract. Within two days, all traces of c. difficile vanished from her body.
Gorski contacted the doctors at Mass General and begged them to see his daughter. No response. He tried other doctors around the country -- no luck. Then one gastroenterologist -- whose hospital had barred him from performing the operation on a child -- agreed to help. The doctor taught Gorski how to perform this minimally-invasive procedure at home, which involves using colonoscopy instruments to squirt a diluted stool sample into the large intestine.
Now, Gorski says, "I'm getting my stool and blood tested to make sure that I don't carry any pathogens. That way I'll be prepared, if the time comes and I need to donate my bacteria to Maya."
Gorski's plan may sound medieval, but he could be at the forefront of a revolution. We are entering the age of living medicines with a growing interest in probiotics, or microorganisms introduced into the body for their beneficial qualities. Scientists in labs around the country are racing to identify the thousands of bacteria that live in our gut, and to figure out which of these species help human beings fight off disease. Ideally, they will be able to pick out the bugs that help our bodies ward off diabetes, or obesity, or asthma.
In the meantime, the best approximation we've got is, well, crap. A healthy person's feces teems with bacteria that keep his or her body running smoothly. Some patients believe that they're sick, in part, because they're missing crucial species of bacteria. Medical studies show they may be right -- childhood asthma and Crohn's disease, for instance, appear to be related to a disruption of the gut.
Lately, stories about the success of at-home fecal transplants have been spreading across the Internet, and respected science writers and researchers have expressed support for the procedure. People are buzzing about the possibilities. Dr. Lawrence Brandt, the chief of gastroenterology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, told me that he receives several emails a week from people begging for fecal transplants. It used to be just the c. difficile sufferers. But now he hears from people who are hoping to beat diabetes, autism, or obesity. It's not clear whether a gut bacteria can help with these complaints, but nonetheless many patients are hoping for a miracle.