Clostridium difficile colitis, commonly known as C. diff, infects some 500,000 people per year in the United States, with sometimes deadly effects, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. But Mark Smith ’09 and James Burgess ’09 have a safe and effective solution to fight the intestinal bug — and it uses material that normally gets flushed down the toilet.
Smith and Burgess are cofounders of OpenBiome, a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts that provides stool samples used in a procedure called fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), which introduces microbes from healthy stool to fight C. diff. If you think it sounds a little weird, you’re not alone. Smith, a microbiologist, said he had the same reaction when he first heard about FMT.
As a graduate student at MIT, Smith studied the human microbiome, the collection of microbes that live in or on the human body. After reading about FMT and its effectiveness, he asked Burgess if there might be a business opportunity for a stool bank, to provide the specimens needed for the transplant. But with the procedure’s intellectual property largely in the public domain, Burgess did not see much potential for profit.
The idea remained dormant until a friend’s relative contracted a persistent C. diff infection and struggled to find a medical facility that would provide the FMT treatment. (He eventually received a successful fecal transplant, after a year and a half of recurring infections.)
Smith and Burgess returned to their plans and decided to try launching a nonprofit. They researched the relevant regulations and developed protocols for screening donors and processing samples. Continue reading