A while back I said I had “microbiomes on the brain”. I meant that metaphorically. But now, two surgeons at UC Davis are in big trouble for deliberately putting bacteria in their patients’ brains.
Thing is, they say the patients requested it. “If I come down with a glioblastoma, I will demand that it be done on myself,” one of the surgeons told the Sacramento Bee.
Glioblastoma is a nasty, nasty brain cancer. According to the SacBee article – I haven’t been able to track down any other information on this therapy – there are accounts of glioblastoma patients surviving years after contracting infections, leading to a hypothesis that introducing bacteria into head wounds might be an effective therapy. [UPDATE: lots and lots of info here, both on the UC Davis situation and on the idea of treating cancer with bacteria]
How did the UC Davis patients fare? One died of sepsis (infection), one died from the tumor but also had sepsis, and one lived for at least ten months after the treatment, with a reduction in the tumor but also suffering a wound infection. The surgeons then asked for permission from an ethics committee to infect five more patients.
The university said no way, launched an investigation, and ultimately told the surgeons not to do any more experimentation on humans. The surgeons say they weren’t experimenting, just applying an admittedly rare treatment.
Going rogue: DIY germ transfers
Bacterial transfers occupy a weird gray area in medicine They’re not exactly a drug, or a tissue, or a device (the categories the FDA considers for regulation). You can get bacteria from anywhere, especially if the source you’re looking for is the human microbiome: everyone you know is a potential donor.
Fecal transplants, which have a 90% success rate at curing debilitating C. diff infections, are so cheap, easy, and effective that they should be a first treatment, not a last resort; but few doctors offer them. One is working on a home enema protocol so sufferers can DIY the treatment with their donor (often a spouse or close relative).
It’s not so different from the situation with sperm donors: almost half the earth’s population possesses the little swimmers, and can churn them out on demand, so why should the expense and red tape of a sperm bank be necessary for conception without sex? Controversially, it’s not; a lesbian couple can meet their donor for coffee and perform the transfer in a two-step process simple enough it can be done in a Starbucks bathroom
.With sources of human microbiota all around us, there’s no need to limit probiotic treatments and research to species you can grow industrially and stuff into a pill, that must then make their way through the patient’s digestive tract before eventually finding their home (although, miraculously, that often works.) Why not try a more direct route?
Babies born by c-section miss out on their mothers’ vaginal microbiota, possibly leading to health problems. Probiotics and even fecal transplants have been tried, with mixed success, but the simple technique of smearing mom’s vaginal secretions onto the baby “has been proposed … but to date there are no published studies.”
Who knows what other bacterial “transplants” might be therapeutically important? For skin infections, vaginal infections, perhaps even transfer of mouth bacteria to prevent cavities? I’m not endorsing brain bacteria, but I bet there are some promising disease treatments growing in you, and on you, right now.