fecal transplants

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MIT Lab Hosts Nation’s First Stool Bank, But Will It Survive?

Bottles of frozen human stool for fecal transplants at the nation's first stool bank, OpenBiome. (Photo: Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

Bottles of frozen human stool for fecal transplants at the nation’s first stool bank, OpenBiome. (Photo: Gabrielle Emanuel/WBUR)

You walk through a labyrinth of MIT buildings and into what looks like a typical laboratory: white walls and clean counters, the constant buzz of machines, the clutter of pipettes. In the corner, you open the door to a hulking freezer.

When the puff of frosty air clears, you see stacks of plastic bottles filled with what looks a little like smoothies — in tawny, rusty colors Odwalla would never market. That’s your first hint of this lab’s unique purpose. Then there’s the giveaway: on the sterile countertop, you see a trophy of a squatting muscleman, labeled “Most Generous Donation.”

Welcome to the first national stool bank. It’s like a blood bank, but for fecal matter. And that brown smoothie is actually very healthy stool, parasite-free and loaded with happy bacteria.

In early October, the stool bank — called OpenBiome — started shipping these bottles around the country. Once that FedEx box of dry ice and stool arrives at the hospital, the doctor can do a fecal transplant — which is exactly what it sounds like. You take a healthy person’s feces and put them into a very sick person’s gut. And if all goes well, a few hours later that sick person is much better.

America is just beginning to develop a stomach for this procedure — it’s gaining popularity among patients and doctors. And by all accounts the stool bank has made things much easier. But there is a chance those stool shipments will come to an abrupt halt.

Late last week, the FDA released a draft of its new fecal transplant guidelines. As they are worded, things don’t look good for the OpenBiome stool bank.

The FDA is thinking about requiring the patient or the doctor to personally know the donor. But that doesn’t work so well for the stool bank, where the donations come from “Donor One” and “Donor Two.” They are anonymous gifts and soon that might not be allowed.

The Ecosystem In Our Gut

But, first things first, why are we even talking about poop transplants? Continue reading