C. difficile had Meg Newman's number; it had struck her 18 different times beginning in 1985. The bacterial infection takes over the gut bringing explosive diarrhea, dehydration, weight loss, and at its worst depletes blood platelets. It causes nearly 30,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.
"I was one sick puppy as that point and literally three days after the transplant I was doing pretty well, day four even better."
Meg knew these statistics not just from personal experience but also because she was a doctor at San Francisco General Hospital. Antibiotics had sometimes helped to treat the infection, but it never quite seemed to go away. Now, "It felt like part of my colon was sort of sliding off as I had the bowel movement." On her worst day she counted 33 bowel movements. It was 2005 and she knew she was at the end of her rope.
Medical training had taught Meg to look at the data. So when antibiotics failed, she searched the literature for other options. One was a seemingly off-the-wall treatment called fecal transplants, which essentially gives poop from a healthy person to one who is sick.
Its roots stretch back to "yellow soup" used to treat dysentery in China nearly two thousand years ago, in which ancient Chinese treaters would combine stool with liquid, mash it up, and administer it. The approach also is commonly used in veterinary medicine today. However, there were only about three papers on its use in humans in the medical literature at that time, she recalls. Still, the logic of the intervention appealed to her.
The gut microbiome as a concept and even a word were not widely known fifteen years ago. But the idea that the microbial community in her gut was in disarray, and a transplant of organisms from a healthy gut might help restore a more normal ecology made sense. And besides, the failure of standard medicine left her few options.
Meg spoke with a colleague, gastroenterologist Neil Stollman, about a possible fecal microbial transplant (FMT). Only a handful of doctors in the U.S. had ever done the procedure; Stollman had tried it just once before. After conversation with Newman, he agreed to do it.
They decided on Meg's partner Sherry as the donor. "I try very hard to use intimate sexual partners as the donor," explains Stollman. The reason is to reduce disease risk: "The logic there is pretty straightforward. If you have unprotected sex with this individual, in a monogamous way for a period of time, you have assumed pretty much any infectious risk," like hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis, he says. Other donors would be screened using the same criteria used to screen blood donations, plus screening for parasites that can live in stool but not blood.
Martini aficionados fall into two camps, fans of shaken or stirred. In the early days the options for producing of fecal transplants were a blender or hand shaken. Stollman took the hands-on approach, mixing Sherry's fecal donation with saline to create "a milkshake in essence." He filtered it several times through gauze to get out the lumps.
Then he inserted a colonoscope, a long flexible tube, through the anus into Meg's colon. Generally a camera goes through the tube to look for polyps and cancers, while other tools can snip off polyps and retrieve tissue samples. Today he used it to insert the fecal "milkshake" as high up the colon as he could go. Imodium and bed rest were the final pieces. It works about 90 percent of the time today.
Meg went home with fingers crossed. "And within about two weeks things just slowed down; the diarrhea just stopped. I felt better so my appetite was better." The tide had turned, though it would take months to slowly repair the toll taken on her body from disease and antibiotics.
Then in 2011 another serious medical challenge required heavy use of antibiotics and Meg's C. difficile came roaring back; she needed a second FMT. Sherry had a bad sinus infection and had been on antibiotics, so that ruled her out as a donor. Red, Meg's godson, volunteered. He was twenty-one and had little or no exposure to antibiotics, which can harm friendly bacteria living in the gut.
"I was one sick puppy as that point," Meg recalls, "and literally three days after the transplant [from Red] I was doing pretty well, day four even better. It was unbelievable." It illustrated that donors are not the same, and that while an intimate partner may be the safest option, it also may not be the most efficacious donation in terms of providing missing parts of the microbial ecosystem.
By then, FMTs were starting to come out of the shadows as more than just a medical oddity. One gigantic milestone in changing perceptions was a Dutch study on using the procedure to treat C. difficile that was published in January 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine. "That was the first trial where people said, look this isn't voodoo. This wasn't made up; it really worked," says Colleen Kelly, another pioneer in using FMTs to treat C. difficile and a researcher at Brown University. A single dose was successful more than 80 percent of the time in resolving disease in patients who had failed multiple regimens of antibiotics.
Charlatans pounced on the growing interest in the microbiome, promoting FMT as a cure for all sorts of ailments for which there was no scientific evidence. The FDA stepped in, announcing it would regulate the procedure as a drug, and essentially banned use of FMTs until it wrote regulations. But the outcry from physicians and patients was so great it was forced to retreat and has allowed continued use in treating C. difficile albeit on an interim regulatory basis that has continued since 2013.
Another major change was the emergence of stool banks, modeled on blood banks. The most widely know is OpenBiome, established in 2012 as a nonprofit by young researchers at Harvard and MIT. It aimed to standardize donation of stool and screening for disease, and package them in frozen form for colonoscopic delivery, or pill form. It greatly simplified the process and more doctors became willing to use FMTs to treat C. difficile. Today, some gastroenterologists specialize in administering the transplants as a feature of their practice.
To be sure, there have been some setbacks, including a transplant between family members where the recipient became obese, likely in part because of bacteria in the material she received. The same thing has occurred in studies in mice. And last year, an elderly man died from a toxic strain of E. coli that was in material provided by a stool bank. That caused the FDA to add that pathogen to the list of those one must screen for in products designed for use as fecal transplants.
Cost remains an issue. OpenBiome charges $1500-$2000 per transplant dose, depending on whether a frozen or pill form of the product is used. And that is likely to go up as the FDA increases the number of diseases that must be screened for, such as the virus that causes COVID-19, which is present in feces and likely can be transmitted through feces. Most insurance companies do not cover FMTs because no product has been formally approved for use by the FDA.
One of the greatest treatment challenges is making the correct diagnosis, says physician Robin Patel, who initially treated patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota but now spends most of her time there developing new diagnostics. Many things can cause diarrhea and the simple presence of the organism does not mean that C. difficile is causing it. In addition, many people are colonized with the bug but never develop symptoms of the disease.
Patel used the expensive tool of whole genome sequencing to look in great detail at C. difficile in patients who were treated with antibiotics for the infection and had recurrent diarrhea. "Some of them, as you might predict, were getting their symptoms with the same exact strain [of C. difficile] but others were not, it was a different strain," suggesting that they had been reinfected.
If it is a different strain, you might want to try antibiotics, she says, but if the same strain is present, then you might want to try a different approach such as FMT. Whole genome sequencing is still too slow and expensive to use in regularly treating patients today, but Patel hopes to develop a rapid, cost-effective test to help doctors make those types of decisions.
Biotech companies are trying to develop alternatives to poop as a source for transplant to treat C. difficile. They are picking and choosing different bacteria that they can grow and then combine into a product, to varying degrees of success, but none have yet crossed the finish line of FDA approval.
"I think [the future of FMTs] is going to be targeted, even custom-made."
The FDA would like such a product because it is used to dealing with small molecule drugs that are standardized and produced in batches. Companies are pursing it because, as Kelly says, they are like sharks "smelling money in the water." Approval of such a product might cause the FDA to shut down existing stool banks that now exist in a regulatory limbo, leaving the company with a monopoly of exclusive rights to the treatment.
Back when Meg received her first fecal transplant, the procedure was so obscure that the guidelines for treating C. difficile put out by the American College of Gastroenterology didn't even mention FMT. The procedure crept into the 2013 revision of those guidelines as a treatment of last resort. Guidance under review for release later this year or early next year will ease use further but stop short of making it a first option.
Stollman imagines a future holy grail in treating C. difficile: "You give me a stool specimen and I run it through a scanner that tells me you have too much of this and too little of that. I have a sense of what normal [microbial composition of the gut] should be and add some of this and subtract some of that. Maybe I even give you some antibiotics to get rid of some of the bad guys, give you some probiotics. I think it is going to be targeted, even custom-made."
His complete vision for treating C. difficile won't arrive tomorrow, but given how rapidly FMTs have become part of medicine, it is likely to arrive in pieces and more quickly than one might think.
About five years ago Meg discovered she had an antibody deficiency that contributed to her health problems, including vulnerability to C. difficile. She began supplementation with immunoglobulin and "that has made a huge difference in my health. It is just unbelievable how much better I am." She is grateful that fecal transplants gave her the time to figure that out. She believes "there's every reason to consider it [FMT] as a first-line treatment and do the studies, ASAP."
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."