Canadian researchers have built an artificial gut to synthesize feces in the lab in an attempt to make fecal transplants safer for the patients who need them. Along with her colleagues at the University of Guelph in Ontario, microbiologist Emma Allen-Vercoe is working to eliminate the risk that the transplanted poop contains pathogens which will endanger the recipient.
Fecal transplants represent an icky but promising way of treating deadly intestinal bacteria — particularly Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, a dangerous bacterium responsible for killing an estimated 14,000 Americans every year. But relatively few transplants take place in the United States, in part because of onerous regulations imposed by the Food and Drug Administration. Allen-Vercoe's team is working to tailor transplanted gut microbes to individual patients — but they don't grow well in petri dishes, she told Popular Science, spurring the team to make synthetic feces in the lab.
Scientists call the synthetic feces 'RePOOPulate'
The feces is produced inside a machine nicknamed "robogut" — a set of six beakers full of a brown sludge containing lumps of starch and indigestible cellulose. Scientists add bacteria from human feces to the sludge to create the synthetic version, which they have nicknamed "RePOOPulate." From there it can be safely transplanted into a patient; researchers used the synthetic feces to successfully treat C. Diff in two people.
Allen-Vercoe told Popular Science that she worries about regulations imposed by agencies like the FDA, saying the rules are encouraging people with C. diff to take matters into their own hands. "Because governments are making it very difficult to get the medical supervision for a fecal transplant, there’s this sort of underground culture of people doing them on each other, just getting the information off the Internet and then transplanting without any supervision," she said. "With no proper surveillance, they could be doing far more harm than good. I am terrified for them."