Faecal transplants 'may be the way of the future'
Drug makers racing to develop medicines and vaccines to combat a germ that ravages the gut and kills thousands have a new challenger - the human stool.
For patients hit hardest by the bacterium Clostridium difficile, getting a "stool transplant" could become a standard treatment within just a few years.
Just as blood banks and sperm banks are now commonplace, stool banks may soon dot the landscape.
About 3 million Americans are infected annually with the bacterium - also known as C. diff - which spreads mainly through hospitals, nursing homes and doctors' offices. It is common in Australia in various strains, including the deadly 244.
Most people have no symptoms, but 500,000 Americans develop abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhoea and inflamed colons. As many as 30,000 die each year from the bacterium, usually after recurrences of infection.
The infections are typically the result of taking antibiotics, which wipe out friendly bacteria in the colon that normally keep C. diff under control.
Transplants of stool from screened donors - given by enema, colonoscopy or a tube down the throat - restore these bacteria.
Although the vast majority of C. diff infections occur in healthcare settings, more and more cases are occurring in younger adults and children who have not recently taken antibiotics or been hospitalised.
They include people who take proton pump inhibitors - a leading class of heartburn drugs.
Costly treatments from Merck and Co and other drugmakers, and a vaccine from Sanofi, are on the horizon, but growing numbers of gastroenterologists are more excited about the use of human stool transplants, which in experimental settings have consistently cured 85 percent to 90 per cent of patients who have had multiple episodes of C. diff.
"Until recently, fecal transplants have been on the fringes of mainstream medicine," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Dr Cliff McDonald, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as saying.
"It could become the primary mode of therapy within a year or two for patients with multiple recurrences," he added.