Intestinal flora are microbes living in every human being's digestive tract that do the grunt work of digestion; they play an important role in breaking down the food people eat. These microbiota are also a part of the immune response, helping the immune system learn to properly distinguish friend from foe. One type of these microbes is a bacterium called Clostridium difficile. Normally, there is only a small population of this bacterium in the gut. When, however, other gut microflora are reduced or eliminated, typically by antibiotics, C. diff can get out of control, growing unchecked and causing serious illness. Symptoms of this include watery diarrhea, fever, and nausea. In some cases, a C. diff infection can result in colitis.
It can also result from colitis, as inflammatory bowel disease can trigger a C. diff infection. Abdominal or gastrointestinal surgery is another possible cause, particularly in patients who have experienced an infection already. A type of drug called a proton pump inhibitor is often prescribed for chronic indigestion, GERD, and other conditions; it can also make someone more prone to C. diff infection. Suppressing the immune system, such as through chemotherapy, also raises the risk.
The standard treatment for C. diff infection is easily administered and when it works—90 percent of the time—it works quickly and with no side effects. Despite this, the treatment sounds unappealing: fecal transplant. The microbes in the donated matter replace the gut flora the patient had lost, recolonizing the intestine and taking it back from C. diff. Recently, researchers have been looking for a synthetic substitute. Not just a joke-shop novelty, the synthetic version avoids the problem of pathogens from the donor being acquired by the recipient, as well as overcoming the aesthetic objection.
Another possible treatment being investigated involves llamas. A group of Canadian scientists who are studying llamas say they have found a type of antibody in the South American pack animals—shared by their cousins, camels, as well as by sharks—that may give information on how to stop C. diff from colonizing the gut when it is able to do so. The llama antibodies aren’t suitable for human use directly, but they may provide a blueprint to develop a synthetic treatment.