MARIETTA, GA --A new medical procedure involving pumping fecal matter into one's colon is saving one woman's life.
Kaitlin Hunter's struggle began in June 2011
when a car accident fractured her lower spine, lacerated her liver and
colon, and broke all ten toes.
Emergency crews used the Jaws of Life to cut
Hunter from her dad's car, and then she was flown to the hospital, where
she spent the next month.
Upon her release, Hunter flew home to Georgia.
It hadn't been the summer vacation she imagined, but she thought she was getting better.
"Right when I got off the plane, I went to
the hospital. I was having extremely bad stomach pain. A month later, we
found out it was C. diff," Hunter said, using the abbreviation for the
bacteria Clostridium difficile.
In the hospital after her accident, doctors followed standard care and put Hunter on antibiotics to prevent an infection.
In spite of the antibiotics -- or possibly
because of them -- C. diff infected her colon, causing severe stomach
pain, diarrhea and vomiting.
Hunter, who stands 5 feet 7 inches tall, lost 40 pounds during her struggle.
Her weight plummeted to 85 pounds.
It's believed that antibiotics, which kill
harmful infection-causing bacteria, also weaken the beneficial, healthy
bacteria percolating in the colon.
With the colon's defenses down, C. diff grows rampant, releasing a toxin and inflaming the colon.
C. diff infections kill about 14,000 people
in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, and the number and severity of total cases have
increased dramatically over the past decade.
Even though antibiotics put someone at risk
of developing a C. diff infection, standard treatment still calls for
prescribing more and different antibiotics to kill the C. diff and allow
healthy bacteria to recolonize.
But for many people such as Hunter -- who
went through nine rounds of antibiotic treatments -- the healthy
bacteria never get the upper hand, and the C. diff just keeps coming
Increasingly, doctors are taking a different approach.
Instead of continued assaults on bacteria,
"fecal matter transplants" recolonize the colon with new bacteria from a
"This is brand-new for most
gastroenterologists," said Dr. Suku George, Hunter's treating physician.
"We are very excited about this."
George had never deposited fecal matter by colonoscopy into a patient until Hunter wanted to try it.
Hunter's mother "donated" one of her stools for the procedure.
Next, the hospital lab carefully diluted it, and George pumped the foreign fecal matter right into Hunter's colon.
The result ended Hunter's struggle with C. diff.
A study published in March reported a 91%
cure rate after just one fecal matter transplant, and a 98% cure rate
when combined with an additional round of antibiotics.
Remarkably, that study only included the sickest of patients.
All 77 of the study participants already had a
recurring C. diff infection, having tried and failed five rounds of
antibiotic-only treatments over 11 months, on average.
The study used the colonoscopy method, which
many believe is the most effective, because relatively large amounts of
fecal matter can be placed deep inside the colon.
Other methods use either an enema or a
nasogastric tube, which sends fecal matter through the nasal passage,
down the throat and into the stomach.
George tried the nasogastric tube on Hunter, using fecal material from her father, but the C. diff infection returned.
He then asked for and received permission to perform the hospital's first colonoscopic fecal transplant.
Gastroenterologists pioneering the practice
unanimously seem to agree that eventually a cleaner, commercially
developed suppository will replace the crude feces and water mixtures
currently in use.
"It'll become a little more acceptable to
hospitals and patients and more widely performed," said Dr. Lawrence
Brandt, a professor of medicine and surgery at New York's Albert
Einstein College of Medicine who was the lead author on the March study.
"But for people that have recurring C. diff, it doesn't really much
matter, because these patients are so ill and so much want to get
better. The fact that it's stool, it doesn't matter to them."