Researchers have created a synthetic “poop” aimed at treating recurrent infections of C. difficile, a toxin-producing bacterium that causes severe and often debilitating diarrhea.
The fake stool, dubbed “RePOOPulate,” is intended to replace donated human stool used in fecal transplants, a treatment that’s been successful in overcoming intractable cases of C. difficile infection.
Clostridium difficile can take hold when a person is exposed to the highly contagious bacteria while taking antibiotics for another infection. Because those drugs destroy healthy, protective bacteria in the gut, C. diff is allowed to overpopulate the large intestine.
C. diff is typically treated with a different antibiotic, but can rebound once treatment stops, leading to chronic rounds of re-infection and retreatment. The disease can lead to severe and life-threatening inflammation of the colon.
Fecal transplants have been successful in knocking out C. difficile by repopulating a person’s colon with donated healthy bacteria, but the “ick” factor makes it difficult for patients to accept.
“The problem is, of course, that fecal transplants are kind of primitive and disgusting,” said Emma Allen-Vercoe, a microbiologist at the University of Guelph who led development of the synthetic poop. “Patients don’t like it. A lot of them will put up with it because they’re desperate … and donors are not terribly keen usually.”
The artificial stool is made up of 33 different bacterial strains initially derived from donor stool and grown in the Robo-gut, a lab system designed by Allen-Vercoe that mimics conditions in a human’s large intestine.
“It looks a little like a vanilla milkshake,” she said of the preparation of bacterial matter in a thick saline solution. “And it doesn’t smell nearly as bad as poop, I must say.”
The synthetic stool is given to a patient using a colonoscopy, the same way a fecal transplant is performed. But the “ecosystem,” as it’s formally known, doesn’t have to be screened first for infectious diseases as donor stool would and is therefore safer, she said.