From Crap to Cure: The Story of Fecal Transplants
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."
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.