Author Archives: jliu

sick? eat s###!

Recently, Scientists and Researching physician have made poop pills a viable therapy against C. Difficile infections.

Frozen pills of fecal matter, ready for ingestion. - NPR/ Hohmann Lab

Frozen pills of fecal matter, ready for ingestion. – NPR/ Hohmann Lab

Why would anyone in their right mind want to ingest pills filled with poop? according to the lead researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann, it’s a big step from the previous methods of enemas and nose drip-tubes, which were accident-prone, especially “if people gagged and vomited, they could inhale fecal matter. “

Yikes. Why are people taking such grotesque (if not extreme) methods for treatment? what exactly is a C. difficile infection, and why is it so difficult to treat?

Clostridium difficile  is a type of bacteria that is known to cause “opportunistic infections”, or infections when the host is able to be infected easily, usually with the host being in a weakened/compromised state; in this case, most of the cases of C. difficile infections are caused by the lack of other, more benign bacteria colonizing the intestines, usually due to antibiotic treatment. This is akin to introducing wolf packs onto a sheep farm, where there are no competitors/predators for the wolves. As a result, the wolves prosper, at great cost to the sheep and the sheep farmer – a fitting metaphor for both the person infected by C. difficile , and the physician treating it, since C. difficile infections are especially antibiotic-resistant, and are prone to recurrent (i.e: multiple and returning) infections.

How C.difficile spreads- Wikipedia/CDC

The purpose of undertaking fecal transplants is to re-populate the patient’s colon and intestines with benign/helpful bacteria, thereby out-competing the harmful C.difficile. In an extension to the wolves/farmers metaphor, this would be akin to introducing more farm workers, scaring away the wolf pack and ensuring the prosperity of the farm.

Of course, the draw-back to this form of therapy is the “ick-factor”, effective though it may be.  This is why scientists have been working on a synthetic version of the bacteria flora populating our gut- dubbed appropriately, “rePOOPulate”. Research is still on-going  in the field of bacteria flora colonizing our gut; hopefully, one day someone can invent a form of therapy with all of the benefits of faecal transplants, and none of the “ick-factor”.

YouTube Preview Image  Source:Mary Greely Medical Centre, Via YouTube

– James L.

The bugs in your guts are making you fat.

Generally when we think “bacteria” and “guts”, we think of nasty things like food poisoning or the stomach flu. But in reality, there are large amount of bacteria living in our lower digestive system – what scientists call the Gut Microflora. In fact, some recent research has shown that the bacteria living in our guts aren’t simply enjoying a tenant-landlord relationship; in fact, they may actively contribute to our overall health. A good example of this is the much-hyped “probiotics” recently being promoted as the new “superfood” essential to successful diets. As Yogurt companies have been advertising left and right,   “an exclusive probiotic culture … has been shown to survive passage through the digestive tract in sufficient amounts for Activia to help regulate the digestive system”. But is there any truth to this?

Some research has indicated that certain species of bacteria may contribute to the overall efficiency of energy extraction and affect overall levels of host obesity;  and in fact, studies in mice have shown that mice with differing levels of obesity has different compositions in their gut microflora, showing quite the correlation between bacterial colonies in the gut and obesity. This begs the question, Would changing the bacteria help make you skinnier?

 Scientific American-Volume 310, Issue 6. "How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin"

Scientific American-Volume 310, Issue 6.
“How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin”










To make a long and complicated answer short, We don’t know.  Though there has been trials done confirming the short-term effects on things related to obesity, so far no study has proven effective, as the gut microflora is a complicated subject with many facets to watch.  That being said, There are current studies in the works, so keep an (critical) eye on your news feed, and feel free to eat all the yogurt you’d like.

– James L.




Miracle Cures? Not Quite.

Hey, remember that miracle baby that was found to be HIV-free?

No? What about the HIV-killing bee venom?

How about the cure for all cancer, courtesy of you friendly neighbourhood mole-rat? They all sound so promising, don’t they? All the talk with “foresee[ing] a day when the … treatment could give … a lifetime free of toxic and costly antiviral drugs”  and “radically and potentially life-saving treatment[s]“.  At this rate, it sounds like the new “wonder-drugs” are just around the corner;  and when they hit the pharmacies and hospitals, the world will be a much, much better place.

So where’s the cancer drugs? Why aren’t pharmaceutical companies scrambling to raise beehives to harvest bee venom? And why are doctors still prescribing antivirals to HIV+ patients? What happened to those “major breakthroughs” and “game-changers”? To make a long story short, science doesn’t work like that. The science behind new drugs is a well-tested and extensively researched, and it follows a rigorous process.

LONG ROAD TO A NEW DRUG” by Lizanne Koch – own work. Via Wikibooks.








The development of a new drug begins with a breakthrough in research – things like a new therapy target, or a new way of treating a condition. A classic example of this is the key development in HAART therapy towards controlling the HIV virus, as shown in the video in detail.

YouTube Preview Image

After first observing AIDS in the US in 1981, it took two years for researchers to confirm the source of the symptoms as the HIV virus in 1983, and another 4 years for the FDA to approve azidothymidine/AZT,  one of the first antiviral drugs effective against suppressing HIV. The video describes the molecular mechanism of AZT:

YouTube Preview Image

Of course, AZT was ripe with side-effects; it took until 1991 for researchers to find effective antivirals which minimized the side-effects.  The entire process to develop today’s HAART took just over 10 years  – hardly “around the corner”. And this is a process repeated by many of the novel drugs proposed in academia  – it takes DECADES, if not years to develop a drug that is safe and effective.

So, where do all those “break-throughs” fit in? Well… That’s the thing. Even though science makes discoveries in cutting-edge fields on a daily basis, it takes months, if not years of follow-up experiments to confirm the results. Adding this to the arduous process of drug development, it may be a long, long time before a viable drug is developed, assuming the new proposed drug holds up in the experiments and the clinical trials. Of course, one can only hope that the breakthrough doesn’t turn out to be a false-positive, like the (ex-)HIV-free baby.

As for the daily media sensationalist titles, they may sound hopeful and optimistic (not to suggest that they’re not), but the point is to take them with a grain of salt. After all, a disease takes years to be understood scientifically, and longer still to develop a working treatment. And of course, always remember:

source: XKCD

Souce: XKCD

– James L.