This weeks Science Talk podcast has a very good discussion on a new and evolving concept in medicine.. Using bacteria to restore our natural bioflora in order to treat disease.
As many of you may have heard along the way, our bodies are home to more bacterial cells than human cells. We are outnumbered 10-1 by bacterial cells in our own body. There are literally thousands of different species and we are only beginning to understand what function they play in our bodies. For many years we have viewed bacteria as the enemy and to some extent that is true but its an entirely over simplified view of the real world. Some of the bacteria that live in and on our bodies are harmless. Some are essential in that they produce vitamins or essential amino acids. Some are harmful, but its even more complex than that. Some are beneficial in certain places or harmful in others or important in combination with certain other bacteria and dangerous with others. Our ecosystem is at least as complex as a rainforest ecosystem.
Antibiotics and diet can affect our ecosystem but we really don’t have good data on how. There is a huge amount of research that needs to be done yet in this area. The odds are that these bacteria have evolved with us over millions of years and I wouldnt be the least bit surprised as we learn more that we find out many of these baceteria may even produce hormones and other substances that control important bodily functions for us. I think someday we are going to be thinking about the bacterial inhabitants of our body as another organ and perhaps the largest and most important organ in our bodies.
The podcast is about some work being done to transplant feces from healthy people to people who have had their gut flora disturbed by antibiotic treatment resulting in an infection with a bacteria called c.difficile which is often very difficult to treat. They have reported very high success rates compared to existing treatments but they also discuss some of the practical and regulatory difficulties with studying and using such an unusual treatment.. ie. The FDA doesn’t know how to regulate it because its not a drug, its not an appliance or a device and this deters researchers from using it in studies because it puts them at risk if the FDA hasn’t set guidelines.
Anyway if you can get past the yuck factor its actually pretty interesting.