24 October, 2016 - 15:20 (Research Matters)
If someone came up to you and said the stool from one person can be used as medicine to treat another, you’d most likely be disgusted or find it absurd. It sounds incredible, but it is true.
Microscopic organisms cover every available surface of our body, inside and out. They outnumber the number of human cells by 10 to 1. Apart from using microscopes, scientists also use DNA sequencing to study the microbes we live with – our 'microbiota'. From these studies, it is known that the number and types of microbes differ between person to person, it could even account for the differences in health and illness among us. A large number of microbes that reside in us are beneficial - they help in developing immunity, break down food, fight off microbes that cause diseases and even shape our body odour. Indeed, sequenced genes of the microbiota, collectively called the human microbiome, are dubbed the “second genome” because of their importance in finding new and effective treatments.
It turns out that maintaining a diverse microbiota is important. When antibiotics and cleaning agents are overused, it kills off a majority of the beneficial microbes, which creates a circumstance where the harmful microbes can thrive. It also disrupts normal body function, which makes us susceptible to obesity, diabetes and increases risk for diseases of the immune system.
Antibiotic overuse sometimes results in colitis, an intestinal disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium difficile. Its symptoms are diarrhea, fever, cramping and even death. As a last resort, doctors transplant faeces from a healthy donor into the colon of the patient to restore the numbers of ‘good’ bacteria to fight off the infection. In fact, faecal transplantation has long been in use to treat digestive disorders in horses and cows. Veterinarians are known to make ‘poo tea’ - a solution made from the stool of a healthy animal to orally feed it to a sick animal.