Last fall, Dena Harris went to a rehab facility to visit her 90-year-old mother, who was recovering from a broken hip. Harris knew something wasn’t right: Her mother’s skin was pale and her eyes glassy.
The doctors diagnosed her with a raging gut infection of Clostridium difficile, a nasty bacterium that causes watery diarrhea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that C. difficile kills 14,000 people each year in the U.S. alone.
Harris’ mother, Ann Hart, received the standard treatment — a hefty dose of antibiotics — but the drugs provided only temporary relief. When the infection returned for the third time, Harris became desperate.
"[My mother] was crying from the pain,” Harris says. Hart wound up seeing Dr. Colleen Kelly, a gastroenterologist at Brown University.
Kelly had cured similarly stubborn infections with an unconventional treatment called a fecal transplant. Kelly takes stool from a healthy donor, mixes it with saline and sends it through a tube into the colon of a patient infected with C. difficile.
As Kelly explains, the treatment provides helpful germs that can restore the balance in the gut, replacing a patient’s sickly microbiome with a healthy one. “Those flora establish themselves and crowd out the C. difficile to prevent it from recurring,” she says. “It’s kind of like biological warfare.”
Hart had her transplant in June, and Harris served as her donor. “My mother is clean,” Harris says. “If there’s any doctors out there who snicker, laugh or are ignorant of it, shame on them — it works.”
Kelly says she’s on the cusp of launching a clinical trial — one of the first — to test the procedure.