A promising treatment has shown remarkable success in treating autism.
A recent study has found that fecal microbiota transplants (yes, poop!) reduced autism symptoms by 50%. This is a stunning finding that provides further evidence of the incredible potential of FMT, but the FDA is on the verge of turning this affordable treatment into an expensive drug and thus potentially putting the treatment out of reach for many patients.
Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT) involves transferring fecal matter from a healthy donor into an infected patient to repair the gut microbiota. Incredibly, FMT has an 80% success rate at treating an antibiotic resistant bacterial infection that hits 500,000 Americans a year and kills 30,000. There are vast applications for using FMT to treat illness. It is being studied for a wide variety of indications, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, childhood regressive autism, metabolic disorders, diabetes, autism, and others. FMT could lead to the next generation of medicines that utilize the trillions of microbes living within us to heal.
Part of what makes these findings of the FMT/autism study so remarkable is the lasting effect of FMT. The improvement in gut health and autism symptoms persisted long after FMT was administered—up to two years later in the study.
Why use FMT for autism? Many autistic children have gastrointestinal (GI) problems. These children tend to have the worst autism-related symptoms: chronic GI discomfort can cause irritability and negatively impact behavior. Relieving GI discomfort through FMT can thus go a long way in improving autism symptoms.
Here’s the catch. The FDA is in the midst of deciding whether FMT should be treated like a new drug, or more like donated blood. The FDA’s drug approval process costs hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes into the billions, which is part of the reason drugs are so expensive. Currently, the pioneers behind FMT have a non-profit stool bank, OpenBiome, that supplies most of the fecal matter for transplants in the US. If the FDA decides it’s a drug, though, not only will FMT not be free, but it will probably cost an arm and a leg.
The implications of the FDA’s decision are enormous. We are discovering more and more about the pivotal role of the gut microbiota for human health. We are 10% “human”—that is, for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are 10 microbes. Ninety-nine percent of the genetic information we contain is microbial. This diverse array of microbes help train and modulate our immune system, and some researchers link the rise in autoimmune disorders in the West to a disruption of our microbiota. The gut microbiome plays a role in the manufacture of neurotransmitters like serotonin and may even help us regulate stress levels—so our gut and our mood are connected. Our microbial inhabitants also help us make key nutrients (vitamin B and K, short-chain fatty acids, and other enzymes and amino acids).
The benefits of FMT—of human poop!—should be available to everyone, not just those who can pay. But the FDA has a track record of taking affordable, natural substances and turning them into drugs. Most recently this happened to CBD oil, a non-psychoactive extract from the marijuana plant that also has a number of positive health effects. But that’s another issue for another day!