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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Mnookin: Microbial Transplants

Apart from a bout with Giardia almost twenty years ago, a woman I know had been active and healthy until 2008, when she experienced severe diarrhea and weight loss. She consulted with countless doctors, none of whom could offer a more specific diagnosis than the broad category of irritable bowel syndrome.She underwent dozens of tests in the search for treatment: from elimination diets to special supplements, from antidepressants to a colonoscopy, from muscle testing to traditional Chinese medicine. As a last resort, she considered taking prednisone along with an immuno-suppressant, both of which carry many known risks.

But when she had her microbiome analyzed, it revealed a significant lack of beneficial bacteria, particularly Lactobacillus, which something called fecal transplants have been proven to provide. And while this unconventional treatment is thought to be most effective for Clostridium difficile infections, which she doesn’t have, she decided to see if it might work for her — and placed a notice in our time trade website for a fecal donor.

As a former biology teacher, I was aware that this type of treatment was becoming more common. Last December, I’d learned more about it in the New Yorker, but I’d never really considered the possibility of my personal involvement — much less that of my daughter — until I saw that notice.

Five of her family members and friends, all seemingly-healthy individuals, had already offered to help. But the fecal samples they provided for testing all turned out to contain unfriendly bacteria or parasites. And I realized that at 3 years old, my daughter appeared to be an ideal candidate.

Her birth had been natural and she’d been breastfed for two years. She has a well-rounded diet, hasn’t traveled far, and she’s never been on antibiotics. So when tests confirmed her eligibility, we decided to give it a try.

Dr. Martin Blaser, director of NYU’s Human Microbiome Program, thinks it could someday become more common to prescribe beneficial bacteria than the antibiotics that kill them. And blood banks may even become outnumbered by banks of fecal microbial transplant material — okay — poop banks for short.

The verdict is out on whether or not this treatment method will prove successful in this particular case, but whatever the results, I’m hopeful we’ve entered a new phase in science and medicine in which we freely acknowledge the miraculous power of beneficial microbes — wherever they happen to live.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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