A course of strong antibiotics, as many sufferers know, can successfully treat an infection but cause a troubling side effect: chronic, racking diarrhea. The debilitating digestive problem is caused by the medicine scouring away all of the friendly bacteria in the gut, leaving toxin-producing bacteria to overrun and inflame the colon, a condition that can last for months, years, or a lifetime.
Pioneering gastro-enterologists have found a simple but unusual cure: fecal transplants. A healthy bowel movement is collected from a donor (usually a relative or spouse), diluted, and then squirted high up in the patient’s large intestine. The procedure is still in the experimental stage, with medical journals documenting only about a dozen clinicians worldwide performing fecal transplants on 300-some patients. But the success rate is staggering, writes Scientific American (December 6, 2011): “More than 90 percent of those patients recovered completely, an unheard-of proportion.”
The transplant works by recolonizing the ailing intestine with good bacteria. For 79-year-old retired nurse Marion Browning, a year of chronic pain, diarrhea, and embarrassment was ended after a single treatment with her son’s healthy stool. In the case of a University of Minnesota patient whose acute condition forced her to wear diapers and use a wheelchair, one injection of her husband’s feces led to a complete recovery.
Fecal transplants are not yet covered by health insurance providers. Clinicians are seeking grants to conduct trials, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is stymied on how to categorize fecal matter before it can grant the substance “investigational” status. In the meantime, a small sampling of seven patients have boldly performed home transplants using enema kits—and they report a 100 percent recovery rate.