Medicine Fecal Transplants: The Surgical Procedure You Probably Never Thought Was Possible  

Lisa A. Flowers
9 items

Is fecal transplantation real? And what is a fecal microbiota transplant, anyway? It's a legitimate medical procedure, and basically, it's exactly what it sounds like. The Fecal Transplant Foundation describes it as a process "in which fecal matter, or stool, is collected from a tested donor, mixed with a saline or other solution, strained, and placed in a patient, by colonoscopy, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or enema."

That might sound disgusting, but that's how proper bacteriotherapy works: by re-introducing essential microorganisms into the system. Since the aim of the process is "to replace good bacteria that has been killed or suppressed, usually by the use of antibiotics," a fecal transplant can actually strengthen and restore a person's immune system.

Humans are used to thinking of poop as the disgusting substance secretly covering everything around them. But despite its gross appearance and smell, stool can actually aid someone's health. Does bacteriotherapy work? Many experts think that it does, and fecal transplants are just some of the many ways people are using human waste to help the world.

The Science Of Fecal Transplants Goes Back Thousands Of Years

Healers from the ancient world were seemingly well aware of the transformative powers of poop. The Ebers Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian log from 1500 BCE, is said to contain 50-plus prescriptions "in which sh*t [was] the active ingredient." By the 4th century CE, Chinese healers were using "a suspension of human feces to help patients with food poisoning or severe diarrhea."

The First Fecal Transplant Was Performed In The 1950s

The first fecal transplants were performed in 1958, when physician Ben Eiseman, a surgeon in Denver, administered feces via enema to several patients with "fulminant, life-threatening pseudomembranous enterocolitis" (an early definition of colitis, an inflammatory condition of the bowels). It was a risky procedure, especially at the time. But the educated gamble paid off: all four patients fully recovered from their ailments.

The Transplants Have Massive Success Rates

Maria I. Vazquez Roque, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL, has overseen nine FMTs to treat Clostridium difficile infection (CDI) since 2014. All were completely successful, and featured zero recurrences of symptoms.

"There is an initial yuck factor, but in my experience, once it's known how much this is helping patients and how appreciative they are, that goes away," Vasquez Roque says.

The Mayo Clinic campus in Phoenix, AZ, has a similarly impressive record: as of 2011, the 125 FMTs they've performed have resulted in a 90% success rate.

A Mother's Fecal Matter Is Sometimes Given To Their Infants

Being born is a tricky business. Most people are familiar with the classic image of a doctor holding a baby upside down and spanking him or her to get things going, but not many would envision a physician administering a mother's fecal matter to a child for the same reason.

Nevertheless, many physicians recommend it. As the Fecal Transplant Foundation puts it: "it's customary in many areas of the world for a newborn infant to receive a tiny amount of the mother’s stool by mouth, thought to provide immediate population of good bacteria in the baby’s colon, thereby jump-starting the baby’s immune system."