But don’t worry. While the pills are extracted from feces, they contain everything but the unpleasant stuff.
Yes, it’s true, researchers are actually developing a medication based on feces. And that’s not as outlandish – although it is as unsavory – as it sounds.
Clostridium difficile infections are among the most common and toughest ailments to treat in hospitals, spreading to about half a million Americans each year and causing about 14,000 deaths. Antibiotics can treat the bacterial bug, but over-use of these medications can lead to antibiotic resistance and make people more vulnerable to other infections.
Which is where the poop comes in. It turns out that some people are better at fighting off C. difficile than others, thanks to the good bacteria that live in their gut. And for severe cases of the infection, which can cause severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, doctors have been taking advantage of this fact and performing fecal transplants – giving sick patients some of the good bacterial microbiome, as its called, from healthy folks who are able to fend off the bug.
There are obvious problems with this approach, however. For patients already sick from C. difficile, the last thing they want is a colonoscopy for such a transplant. So some doctors, including Dr. Thomas Louie, an infectious disease expert at University of Calgary who developed the pill, began using nasal tubes to introduce the fecal microbiome — poop, good bugs and all. “Patients don’t mention the smell, because it’s being infused like chocolate milk through a tube,” says Dr. Josbert Keller, a gastroenterologist at the Hagaziekenjuis in the Netherlands, who performed the first trial comparing fecal transplants to antibiotic treatments for C. difficile infections and described his results in the New England Journal of Medicine. Although the study was small, 81% receiving the “browny solution” no longer experienced infection symptoms while only 31% of those taking vancomycin did.
Buoyed by those results, but aware that not everyone would welcome the idea of a stool-infused nasal tube, Louie worked with his team to develop a pill that would concentrate the good bacterial populations in feces, minus the digested food and other contaminants, into a gel capsule that patients could swallow more easily. Among 27 who tested the pill, none had recurrent symptoms of their infection after taking up to 34 capsules. “There’s no stool left – just stool bugs,” Louie said to the Associated Press. “These people are not eating poop.”
As unsavory as it sounds, doctors say such bug-based treatments could be the next generation of medications that treat everything from obesity to inflammation and allergies. Already, probiotic formulations that contain beneficial bacteria can regulate digestion. And since bacterial cells outnumber human ones by ten to one, we may not be far from the day when treatments are focused on boosting populations of (good) bacteria rather than wiping them out.