To a healthy microbiome

By • Published: October 14th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Some cures sound simple.

Recent reports in The New York Times touch upon the case of a woman who was literally crippled by nonstop intestinal problems. She was in mortal danger from a bacterial infection. Antibiotics were powerless. She lost sixty pounds in eight months.

Desperate times called for desperate measures.

University of Minnesota physicians mixed some saline solution with some of her husband’s donated fecal material. The mixture was delivered to the woman’s colon, and something astounding happened.

The patient started to feel better. Her diarrhea ended that day. The bad bacteria upsetting her digestive system disappeared, vanquished by friendly microbes her body had been missing.

The fecal transplantation procedure, known as bacteriotherapy, sounds easy enough. But it couldn’t have been accomplished without sophisticated knowledge of the genetics of the bacterial population in the patient and her husband.

People aren’t lonesome travelers through life. Amazingly, our cells are outnumbered nine to one by tiny microorganisms. An international effort known as the Human Microbiome Consortium is finding out what makes these organisms tick, genetically speaking. Most are friendly, but not all.

In the case of the infected patient, scientists took a genetic survey of bacteria in her intestines, finding that microscopic marauders had taken over. Because scientists were able to understand the genetics of the microbial population, they determined her husband’s contribution of healthful bacteria would help her recover.

Indeed, it was a wondrous and effective remedy. But visionaries of the microbiome project think a pill can be developed to achieve the same results.

That would be an easy-to-stomach solution.