Bacteria transplants newest disease-fighting frontier

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Transplants have become a mainstay of modern medicine.

But the newest kind of transplant doesn't involve kidneys or hearts.

Instead of organs, doctors are transplanting bacteria.

The process builds on two current medical threads - new understanding that human health depends on a balance of good and bad bacteria, and the rising drug-resistance of some dangerous bacteria.

So some local doctors are now transplanting bacteria from the intestines of one person to another, to fight a common and sometimes deadly infection.

Eleanor Fauber's grandfather introduced her to painting when she was four-years-old.

"He'd sit me on his lap and paint, and then he'd put the brush in my hand," recalls Eleanor, of Dingman's Ferry, Pennsylvania.

Since then, Eleanor has won many prizes and taught countless others.

"It's just like an author writing a book, telling a story," she said. "But I can tell the story through my art work."

But the painting stopped 2 years ago, after she took medication for a sinus infection.

"I was only on the antibiotics 3 days and I really got sick," she told Action News.

The problem was C-difficile - or C-diff -- a dangerous intestinal infection.

Small amounts of C-diff bacteria are always in our gut, but antibiotics can upset the balance of good & bad bacteria, letting C-diff take over.

Stronger antibiotics have been the traditional answer to C-diff infections, however,Dr. Neil Nandi of Drexel College of Medicine says they're becoming less effective.

"About 10 years ago, something happened to the C-diff bug that allowed it to secrete more toxin," he says.

Eleanor took nearly a dozen rounds of antibiotics, with no success.

"I was on the vancomycin for a month. Take me off it, in 2 weeks, C-diff was back," she said.

"Go back on the vancomycin, C-diff is back. This went on for a year and 3 months," she added.

So to stop C-diff, Doctor Nandi uses a technique first documented in Chinese medicine 4-thousand years ago.

In a procedure similar to a colonoscopy, a small amount of gut bacteria from a healthy, thoroughly-screened donor was transplanted to Eleanor.

"The whole procedure itself takes no more than 20 minutes," Dr. Nandi says.

The bacteria grows quickly and crowds out the C-diff bacteria, restoring a healthy balance.

It gives fast results.

"The day after the transplant, I was perfectly normal, and I've been normal ever since," Eleanor says emphatically.

"90% cure for c-difficile with one transplant, and if you have 2, in the case that you recur, 98% cure," adds Dr. Nandi.

The FDA allows does allow bacteria transplants specifically for C-difficile.

Dr. Nandi says more research is needed to look for long-term effects, both good or bad.

Today, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported more success with them, from a team at Loyola University Health in Chicago, which specifically used a strain of C-diff which doesn't make the devastating toxin.

The procedure is being studied to see if it will work for other problems as well, such as chronic, drug-resistant sinus infections.

The National Institutes of Health is investing in the fast-growing field of bacteria-balance, with the Human Microbiome Project.

Similar to the Human Genome Project, it is cataloging all the microbes living in parts of our bodies.

Eleanor is thankful she found the bacteria transplant in time.

"I would have died, I know I would have died, because I just couldn't get better," she says.
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