To regulate fecal transplants, FDA has to first answer a serious question: What is poop?

photo illustration of fecal microbiome pills
Are poop pills the wave of the future? Right now, a fecal transplant involves a volunteer, a blender and no real regulation.

When severe, chronic diarrhea strikes, sometimes the only cure is … more feces. It might seem bizarre, but a transplant of healthy human stool and its bacterial ecosystem can mean freedom from a painful, life-threatening illness.

The transplants — called fecal microbiota transplants, or FMTs — are becoming more and more popular. So popular that the stool bank OpenBiome has supplied more than 30,000 stool samples to clinicians and scientists since 2012. Right now, though, the government isn’t quite sure how to regulate fecal transplants. That uncertainty comes from what seems like a simple question: What is poop? Is it a drug? Is it a bodily tissue? Is it a little of both? Then, is the transplant itself a procedure? That’s a whole other regulatory category.

Out of concern that regulations would cut out desperate patients or send companies running to more profitable enterprises, FMTs aren’t actually regulated at all. That leads to the potential for unscreened and potentially dangerous fecal samples to flood the market. A group of doctors and scientists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore have tried to cut through the confusion with a three-track policy plan that would help keep poop transplants clean (as clean as fecal matter gets, anyway), while still allowing patients to get transplants when they need them. The scientists also hope to encourage companies to develop potentially lucrative products for future FMTs — including options that are almost feces-free.

A fecal transplant involves taking a mixture of a donor’s poop and saline (sometimes mixed with the help of a kitchen blender) and inserting it into a patient’s large intestine or far down the gut with a nasogastric tube. Companies are working on alternatives to that procedure, such as pills that deliver the same benefits with less of an “ick” factor.

Currently, FMTs have the most potential for treating Clostridium difficile infections. C. diff is a bacterium normally found in our guts and feces. But unchecked, it can take over the large intestine. The result is inflammation and chronic severe diarrhea that can last weeks or months. There are more than 450,000 estimated cases in the United States each year, and more than 29,000 deaths. Doctors can prescribe antibiotics to kick the bugs out, but in 20 percent of patients, the infection comes back again. And again.

For those patients, FMTs can be a miracle. They resolve symptoms in 85 percent of patients with recurrent C. diff infections, compared with the roughly 20 to 30 percent success rates of antibiotics.

Unfortunately, FMTs also come with a dose of danger. Feces is a mixture of our undigested waste, the beneficial microbes needed to keep our guts healthy and whatever bacteria, fungi and viruses we’ve picked up in our busy lives. So donors need to be screened for pathogens that might make a sick recipient sicker. And the poop needs to be handled carefully to avoid contamination or infection in the people who handle and receive it.

Gastroenterologist Erik von Rosenvinge of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore has performed more than 40 FMTs. “When I first started doing these in 2013, I was having the patients identify a friend or family member, and they would bring in the stool and I would process it myself,” he says. After the first few donations, von Rosenvinge switched to using stool from the OpenBiome stool bank. It saves money and time.

For each donation, the stool bank or hospital will test the feces for pathogens. But who sets the standard to ensure that people getting treated for C. diff are receiving “clean” stool, either from their friends or from a stool bank?

Well, right now, no one.

Poop: Drug or tissue?

The first problem is to figure out what an FMT actually is, at least, in terms of how the government should regulate one. Feces is like a drug, in that the microbes in it can change how the body functions. But because of those very microbes, feces is also a living thing that differs from person to person. In fact, in some ways, poop is like biological tissue, in that it comes from the human body.

But then, the FMT itself is something like a procedure — there’s a method involved in getting one. But that procedure is also delivering a drug. Or is it transplanting a tissue? Here we go again.

“The FDA has been reticent to create a new regulatory product category,” says Jacques Ravel, who studies the microbiome and women’s health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “They’ve been trying to fit the stool into one of the regulated product categories, and there’s limitations every time you do, there’s pros and cons.”

In 2013, the FDA declared that FMTs counted as a drug (technically a “live biotherapeutic product”) in terms of how they would be regulated, which, von Rosenvinge notes, “means all of us are pharmaceutical factories,” pooping out “drugs” once a day on average.

But FMTs don’t have FDA approval yet,…

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