Friday, August 2, 2013

Mind-Control Helicopters and the Healing Power of Poop

Medicine: Five unlikely breakthroughs in medical science today.

he history of science is punctuated with medical breakthroughs that seemed unlikely in the times from which they arose. Infections from simple cuts or sore throats laid waste to millions of people before the 20th century. Where was the cure? Certainly nobody in the 1920s imagined that it would come from green mold that formed on a petri dish in the lab of a London professor who was away on vacation. But the story of penicillin symbolizes the unlikely event that changed the world. It also got us wondering about the unlikely cures that medical science is working on today. The answers are many, of course, but we narrowed the list to five remarkable developments with potentially widespread applications.

The Power of Poop

Human feces was the scourge of early civilization, causing disease and death. So it sounds more than unlikely, it sounds downright bizarre, to report that poop has the power to heal. Surprisingly, human fecal matter contains trillions of microorganisms with potential healing properties.

In 2008, U.S. doctors transplanted human feces into a Minnesota woman suffering from an antibiotic-resistant intestinal infection caused by the bacteria, Clostridium difficile. It was the medics’ last resort. Within days the patient’s infection cleared. “I wouldn’t have predicted it,” says Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab who worked on the case. “But it was a paradigm shift that you could take a microbial community and establish it in a new host.”

The poop cure represents the growing field of “bacteriotherapy,” which works by transplanting microbes from healthy individuals into those who are ill. (The stool in the Minnesota case came from the patient’s husband.) Our “microbiome,” the collection of microbes that live in and on our body, plays a vital role in our well-being. In an adult, there are 10 times more microbial cells than human cells. Imbalances in our microbial communities can cause health problems and infections. Most infections are treated with antibiotics, which destroy bacteria, often with side effects. 

Bacteriotherapy won’t be a one-size-fits-all, as every person is unique and human microbial communities are diverse, says Jonathan Eisen, who studies microorganisms at the University of California, Davis Genome Center. “But the potential for treating some conditions with transplants, either directly from a donor or in a controlled manner from the lab, is enormous.”
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