Feces as Medicine

Yes, that’s right. They’re called fecal microbiota transplants–F.M.T.’s. A healthy person’s stool is mixed in an enema and transplanted to a patient’s rectum. The beneficial bacteria in such transplants are proving very effective in relieving two stubborn illnesses: ulcerative colitis and clostridium difficile (a really bad bacterium that can take hold, ironically, when antibiotics have knocked out a person’s normal bacteria.) About 3,000 F.M.T.’s have been performed in the U.S.

Fecal bacteria

Fecal bacteria at 10,000x magnification.

Excrement is not just rotting food. In a healthy person, it’s  60 percent bacteria, most of it alive and beneficial, that can kill or crowd out hostile species. That percentage is not so surprising considering that in our bodies as a whole, bacteria outnumber human cells ten to one.

In a fascinating article in the New York Times  of July 7, 2013, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, a writing professor at Columbia University, explained “Why I Donated My Stool.” The therapeutic impact of F.M.T.’s is so strong that Lee’s first donation to a friend suffering from ulcerative colitis eased his distress within minutes, though further implants were needed. She adds that “the first randomized clinical trial of F.M.T.’s for clostridium difficile [was] halted because the treatment worked so well that it was unethical to withhold it from the control group.” Moreover, “In April, the F.D.A. decided to classify human stool that is used therapeutically as a drug, and thus approved for use only within an F.D.A-approved clinical study.” This is good news and bad; stool works so well as medicine that now it can’t officially be used as widely.

A friend who is a nurse told me yesterday that therapeutic stool is now available in pill form. We both grimaced. Here comes the future.

It’s one thing to pause and contemplate the visible plants and insects that surround us in the ancient and closely woven web of life. But it is another step to envision the invisible bacteria everywhere, on and in all living things, outnumbering even the human cells in a human body; bacteria that had seemed to us so hostile—all the more so for being unseen—now revealed to be mostly harmless, often helpful, sometimes essential; cells that reproduce simply by dividing, with no inevitable death, with 3.8 billion years of bacterial predecessors, the solo cells, the lives within other life.