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updated: 1/6/2014 6:09 AM

Exploring alternate ways to treat bacterial bowel infection

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There is an old saying "fight fire with fire." In medical terms, this means that you treat an illness with something similar to what caused the illness in the first place.

There is probably nothing more appropriate for this phrase than the treatment of a bacterial bowel infection by using somebody else's feces. This is called fecal transplantation.

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One of the more serious consequences of using antibiotics is overgrowth of the bowel with a very toxic bacterium, Clostridium difficile.

Toxins that are released from Clostridium difficile are extremely toxic and can significantly damage the bowels, often resulting in severe bloody diarrhea.

This infection is quite serious and most commonly happens in hospitals, especially when patients are getting strong antibiotics.

Additional risk factors for Clostridium difficile infection include the use of medications that reduce stomach acid and extended hospitalizations (greater than two weeks).

Treatment for Clostridium difficile infection consists of using the same antibiotics that can cause the infection in the first place.

This approach may not be the most effective since almost 14,000 patients die from this infection annually.

The use of probiotics or "good" bacteria has some benefits also. Along these same lines, "fighting fire with fire," there are a number studies that have shown that for those patients who fail antibiotic therapy, fecal transplantation results in a complete cure over 90 percent of the time (significantly more effective than the use of antibiotics alone).

In a recent study published in the medical journal Digestion it was discovered that the bacterial content in the bowel of patients who had a fecal transplantation was stable over period of three years.

This indicates that the bowel had healed and that the transplanted bacteria had successfully inhibited the unrestricted growth of Clostridium difficile.

Over the past several years, I believe I have written a few articles on the medical use of fecal transplantation.

Although it sounds gross, in nature consumption of feces is a way that insects, animals and possibly humans maintain good bacteria in their bowels.

Why is this important? The bacteria our bowels produce have a large number of compounds that influence our body functions.

There is some very exciting research published over the past several years demonstrating that much of our health is determined by the type of bacteria in our bowels … even to the point that the bacteria in your bowel may contribute to obesity.

At this point in time, however, research is lacking to determine what are the best type of bacteria to have.

However, I do believe in the relatively near future some of the chronic illnesses that we treat with medications may be just as effectively treated with bacteria.

What I find especially interesting is the response of the FDA.

If feces or bacteria are used to treat a specific medical condition then it becomes a drug and needs to undergo a billion dollars worth of testing.

The FDA's definition of what constitutes a drug may be the strongest impediment to a lifesaving therapy.

Patrick Massey MD, Ph.D. is the medical director for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village.

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