Despite the gross factor that comes with a story about fake poop, designed to cure people with chronic bowel problems, this is a feel good story. This so-called pseudo-stool created in a robotic gut actually replaces transplants of real human fecal matter used to correct imbalances in healthy bacterial colonies in patients left devastated by an infection.
Talking about poop with anyone other than a toddler is never fun. That's probably why most of us haven't heard about the practice of introducing healthy human feces into the gastro-intestinal tract of a person suffering from extreme, recurring diarrhea caused by infection with Clostridium difficile, triggered when antibiotics destroy the healthy bacteria living in all our guts.
Cringe worthy, yes. However the practice has been around since the late 50s and involves taking fecal samples from a relative and making purified samples mixed with a solution and inserting it back into the patient via a tube either via the mouth or anus. It may sound downright disgusting, but the practice has an amazing 90 percent success rate of restoring a sick person's normal bacterial flora and digestive patterns.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that even a horribly sick person might have an issue with feces from another person inserted into their body. I don't even like writing about it.
Fortunately medical science has progressed to the state where researchers at the University of Guelph have been able to create fake feces that would perform the same function. They've named their still-a-little-bit-gross invention RePOOPulate.
Bacterial colonies were grown from the stool of healthy donors, and researchers worked to find the right ratio of species. In the end, 33 different strains of beneficial bacteria were grown in a robotic intestine simulator called the "Robo-Gut" (there's a robot for everything and the result was the super probiotic pseudo poop.
The scientists were quick to point out the fake version was more palatable and smelled better, but let's focus on what's really important. When "drizzled" in two patients suffering from the infection they improved within days and stayed well for months after the procedure. Tests showed the beneficial bacteria did the job.
RePOOPulate also has an advantage of being able to be targeted to each patient and that particular synthetic blend of bacteria can be reproduced if needed in the future. It's also safer than the aforementioned human fecal transplant because it avoids transmission of viruses and who knows what else.
Putting aside the "eeww" factor for a minute it's worth noting that some 500,000 suffer from the effects of infection with Clostridium difficile; 1,500 die every year. It can be a serious problem in institutions such as hospitals where antibiotics are prescribed in large doses, or in patients compromised with other illnesses.
The newly minted synthetic poop is still in it's infancy and has more trials to go through before it can be widely used. It might be safe to say that now knowing what the alternatives could be — ingesting human feces or debilitating illness that could lead to death — fake feces suddenly got a lot more feel good than gross.
The results of the University of Guelph are published in the January issue of Microbiome.