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Published On September 23, 2014

BASIC RESEARCH

Supply-Side Solutions

Simplifying fecal transplants could make the treatment safer and more accessible.

While science debates how, when and whether to treat gastrointestinal and other disorders with fecal microbiota transplants, several companies and nonprofits have popped up to try to make the procedure easier and simpler. They’re addressing the hurdles of finding and screening donors as well as the squeamishness many people feel about the very concept of FMT.

To sidestep the need to find a new donor for each FMT patient, a nonprofit called OpenBiome has developed its own local donor bank and ships frozen material to physicians around the country who want to treat C. diff. infections. The organization is now working with 83 hospitals in 30 states and has sent out more than 800 treatments. “Our view is that if you make it a lot easier for clinicians to offer FMT, more will,” says Mark Smith, a founder of OpenBiome. 

Seres Health, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., wants to go further, by identifying the particular components of stool that are responsible for FMT’s healing power and creating an “ecobiotic” containing just those strains of bacteria. According to David Berry, co-founder of Seres and partner at Flagship Ventures, the company is collaborating with infectious disease specialist Elizabeth Hohmann and her research group at Massachusetts General Hospital to develop such a cocktail for treating C. diff. infections, and a clinical trial now in progress has yielded positive results. The company’s ultimate goal is to treat other disorders, too, including Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and even metabolic syndrome, obesity and other inflammatory diseases.

Such a pill could eliminate worries about donor health, the safety risks inherent in a colonoscopy or any medical procedure, and the logistical challenges of fecal transplants. Yet while the Seres product has been described as a “synthetic version” of feces, Barry says that isn’t quite accurate. “It’s more like taking taxol from the yew tree, separating out just the part that yields the effect,” he says.