The treatment may sound appalling, but it works.
Transplanting feces from a healthy person into the gut of one who is sick can quickly cure severe intestinal infections caused by a dangerous type of bacteria that antibiotics often cannot control.
A new study finds that such transplants cured 15 of 16 people who had recurring infections with Clostridium difficile bacteria, or C. difficile, whereas antibiotics cured only three of 13 and four of 13 patients in two comparison groups. The treatment appears to work by restoring the gut’s normal balance of bacteria, which fight off C. difficile.
The study is the first to compare the transplants with standard antibiotic therapy. The research, conducted in The Netherlands, was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
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Fecal transplants have been used sporadically as a last resort to fight the debilitating infection, which kills 14,000 people a year in the United States. The infection is usually caused by antibiotics, which can predispose people to C. difficile by killing normal gut bacteria. If patients are then exposed to C. difficile, which is common in many hospitals, it can take hold.
The usual treatment involves more antibiotics, but about 20 percent of patients relapse, and many of them suffer repeated attacks, with severe diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
Researchers say that worldwide, about 500 people with the infection have had fecal transplantation. It involves diluting stool with a liquid such as saltwater and then pumping it into the intestinal tract via an enema, a colonoscope or a tube run through the nose into the stomach or small intestine.
Stool can contain hundreds or even thousands of types of bacteria, and researchers do not know which ones have the curative powers. So for now, feces must be used pretty much intact.
Medical journals have reported high success rates and seemingly miraculous cures in patients who had suffered for months. But until now there was room for doubt, because no controlled experiments had compared the outlandish-sounding remedy with other treatments.
The new research is the first to provide the type of evidence that skeptics have demanded, and proponents say they hope the results will help bring fecal transplants into the medical mainstream, because for some patients nothing else works.
“Those of us who do fecal transplant know how effective it is,” said Dr. Colleen Kelly, a gastroenterologist with the Women’s Medicine Collaborative in Providence, R.I., who was not part of the Dutch study. “The tricky part has been convincing everybody else.”
She added, “This is an important paper, and hopefully it will encourage people to change their practice patterns and offer this treatment more.”
C. difficile is a global problem. Increasingly toxic strains have emerged in the past decade. In the United States, more than 300,000 patients in hospitals contract C. difficile each year, and researchers estimate the total number of cases, in and out of hospitals, may be 3 million. Treatment costs exceed $1 billion a year.