‘C. diff’ detectives track a global menace – to Canada

Electron microscope image of a C. difficile producing a spore, almost indestructible from the outside world.

Published November 12, 2013

Trevor Lawley keeps hundreds of samples of C. difficile in his freezer, each identified by the country in which the bacterium unleashed its unique brand of misery and death.

He tracked down Aus001 in Melbourne, Australia; collected Gla010 in Glasgow, Scotland; and picked up Lei017 in the Netherlands as part of an international hunt for the origin of “epidemic” C. difficile – a global menace  that pumps toxins into the guts of its victims. It has spread around the world’s hospitals in the last decade, killing thousands.

Lawley, a Canadian with a flair for microbial forensics who now works at a leading British research centre, spent two years travelling the globe collecting hundreds of samples of C. difficile.

Then, in his lab at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, near Cambridge, Lawley and his colleagues extracted the bacteria’s secrets.

Two strains of antibiotic resistant C. difficile that emerged in North America caused the global epidemic, the sleuths report.

One emerged in the northeast U.S. a decade ago; the second, which they call FQR2, surfaced in Quebec.

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Fighting microbes with microbes: Can fecal transplants work where antibiotics fail?

Celine Edelmann, who had a fecal transplant last year, a treatment for her chronic C.diff infection, poses in her home in Montreal, July 16, 2013.
Celine Edelmann, who had a fecal transplant last year, a treatment for her chronic C.diff infection, poses in her home in Montreal (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI PHOTO FOR POSTMEDIA NEWS)

Published November 12, 2013

MONTREAL – Céline Edelmann was on a Buddhist retreat in a secluded cabin in northern Vermont when her intestines began to act up.

There was no phone, no electricity and no running water. “I was in the woods alone,” says the soft-spoken Montreal psychologist, who had been looking forward to the eight-day retreat, unplugged from city life.

She assumed the gut upset would pass. But after countless trips to the outhouse, Edelmann knew something was seriously wrong.

By the fifth day she was so weak she worried she wouldn’t have the strength to go for help. Edelmann packed up her things and made the 20-minute hike through the woods back to the retreat’s main centre.

By nightfall, she was in isolation again – this time in a Montreal hospital being treated by nurses in protective gloves and gowns.

A virulent strain of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, or C. diff. as it’s often called, had infected and inflamed her colon. She soon found herself on a medical odyssey – with a surprising ending.

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Pills of pooh fight off C. difficile infection

Published, October 3, 2013
Dr. Thomas Louie and his pills of pooh. ~ Postmedia News photo

Dr. Tom Louie and his pills of pooh.
~ Postmedia News photo

Dr. Thomas Louie used to whip up fecal transplants in blenders. He now has a more palatable approach: pills you pop in the mouth and swallow.

The capsules — custom-made for each patient — are packed with microbes harvested from fresh, human feces.

After about 90 minutes in transit, the pills release their living cargo into a patient’s intestine, where the microbes start to multiple and restore the gut ecosystem.

“It’s totally un-invasive,” says Louie, an infectious diseases expert at Calgary’s Peter Lougheed Hospital, who invented the capsules to treat stubborn infections caused by C. difficile, a bacterium that can trigger relentless and life-threatening diarrhea.

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