Published November, 12, 2013
GUELPH, Ont. – Emma Allen-Vercoe and her graduate students have come to appreciate the unmistakable odour that hits when you enter their laboratory.
“When we walk in and don’t smell anything, that’s when we begin to worry,” says Allen-Vercoe, a microbial ecologist who has spent almost a decade at the University of Guelph studying what most people can’t wait to flush down the toilet.
Feces provide a window on the vast community of bacteria, fungi and viruses living in the human gut, an ecosystem Allen-Vercoe finds more intriguing than anything in the tropical rain forests or world’s oceans. “It’s the most diverse and densely populated ecosystem on Earth,“ she says.
The human “microbiota” or “microbiome,” as the trillions of organisms are collectively known, is critical to good health. And the microbes do a lot more than help digest food. Mounting evidence indicates they also offer protection against asthma, pathogens, allergies, diabetes and perhaps even certain forms of autism and cancer.
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.
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.