Could a breakthrough treatment for gut problems help us tackle obesity, depression and autism?

Save lives. Earn money. Donate your stool.

It sounds like the opener for a comedy sketch whose authors got stuck at the toilet humour stage. It is, however, the deadly serious tagline of OpenBiome, a US-based stool bank that actively solicits donors, at $US40 a poop, to provide the raw material for its stock in trade, the faecal microbiota transplant (FMT).

FMT is a procedure whose ickyness, for many folk, runs off the scale. In standard form it means churning the faeces of carefully screened donors into a slurry, which is then squirted into the bowel via a colonoscope or enema, the aim being to repopulate healthy bacteria in guts ravaged by disease. For willing volunteers, Australia’s very own stool repository, Adelaide’s BiomeBank, formally opened its doors to public poo donations from late last year.

The procedure itself is attention-grabbing, but its entry onto the medical stage was nothing short of dramatic.

In 2013 the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study of FMT in a nasty type of gut inflammation caused by the bug Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), a disease that kills up to one in 10 of its victims. The study was stopped early for a very unusual reason: FMT was so effective it was ruled unethical to withhold it from other participants in the study.

If that all sounds a bit niche, be advised that FMT is gearing up to play to a wider audience. Evidence is mounting for its benefits in other gut problems, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

The gut also has complex connections with the brain and so altering the gut’s bug profile is, mind-bogglingly, the focus of research in depression, anxiety, autism, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and obesity. And if that can’t entice you to step up for a poo transplant, the good news, depending on your world view of course, is that you can now swallow it, freeze-dried in a capsule – that’s ‘crapsule’ in the vernacular.

So, is it just a matter of time before your next prescription reads, couched in civilised medical terms of course, “eat shit”?

Read the full feature from the Age newspaper here

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