Helicobacter Pylori, a common stomach bacteria. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Jeff Leach is a former anthropologist and the founder of American Gut and the Human Food Project, initiatives aimed at a far-reaching insight into our relationship with our gut fauna, the microbes that live in our digestive tracts. Ever since his daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes ten years ago, Leach's been on a quest to right whatever microbial wrong he believes he unwittingly committed by allowing her to be born into an environment without enough bacteria and other microorganisms.
Late last month Leach's journey took an odd and controversial turn, when he announced that he was replacing all the microbes in his intestines with the microbes belonging to the Tanzanian hunter-gatherers he was living with. According to a blog post pened on September 30, he "inserted a turkey baster into my bum and injected the feces of a Hadza man."
Hunter-gatherers, Leach told VICE, are "connected to the world in a way that we’ve always been until recently: the children are born in the dirt, they’re breastfed for an extended period, and men are covered in the blood and feces and stomach contents of animals. They haven’t been overrun by medications of the modern world. These people are the microbial Noah’s Arc."
Over the past two years or so, others have tried similar projects, giving themselves enemas full of the poop of healthy people; they claim the DIY procedure provides almost instant relief from the symptoms of diseases including ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
The ideas behind these sort of treatments are challenged by some. The anthropologist and pseudoscience debunker John Hawks called Leach's experiment "just wrong," and on October 2, Jack A. Gilbert, a sometime colleague of Leach's, published a paper warning that sloppy science, or sloppy science journalism, might cause people to perform risky and inappropriate procedures on themselves.
But at the same time that this field is being taken over by "citizen scientists," real strides are being made. As the New York Times reported recently, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston just developed a pill that provides effective relief for sufferers of Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, a common and painful bacterial infection. The pill contains human poop, but swallowing shit that way is a much simpler and more comfortable than full-on fecal transplants.
These treatments are about helping a favorable community—for lack of a better term—of bacteria grow inside of you in the hope that it will overwhelm the nasty C. diff bacteria. In other words, bacteria don't simply make diseases disappear, and putting other people's poop up your rear end isn't a cure-all.
"I think people have grabbed onto this as sort of magical thinking: If I could just get a fecal transplant, my Crohn's disease would be gone!" said Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann, who helped develop the poop pills. But while there's good science behind fecal transplants, Leach's experiment sounded dangerous, she added. "Taking some bushman's stool and injecting it up your butt, especially if you're not an ill person, that doesn't make any medical sense to me and I certainly wouldn't recommend it."
The problem with ordinary people shooting poop up their anuses, Hohmann said, is that there's not enough data on these procedures and the benefits and risks. "We get into the questions of, Is this something you would need to repeat, how many times, what is the minimum dose?"
Leach was aware of the dangers of his experiment, and did try to be as safe as one can be when injecting a stranger's poop into one's bottom in the middle of Tanzania.
"We took the [poop donor] to a small hospital and had [HIV] tests done. The risk was I didn’t know anything about his parasites but I’m not necessarily overly concerned with parasites," he said. "There’re a lot of bad parasites out there, but there are parasites that maybe my immune system would appreciate."
In the six weeks since the procedure, Leach has been collecting stool, blood, and urine samples from himself to track what's happening to him. He didn't report suffering from any illnesses, but he has lost 16 pounds without changing his diet. When VICE spoke to him he was in good spirits.
"I think the fecal transplant stuff is going to become very mainstream," he said. "We used to not talk about marijuana and now that’s front and center and acceptable."
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