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On the age-old question of polishing a turd…

You can’t, the saying goes, polish a turd. Possibly not – but you can increase the market value of said defecatory effusion so as to render a polish unnecessary.

Let us explain. It all comes down to the microbiome. It is, we have no doubt at all, our favourite of all the ‘omes’. It offers, after all, the perfect compendium of ‘OMG’ moments to be delivered mercilessly if one is of a mind to enliven the dullest of down-the-pub moments.

There are, for example, 10 times the number of microbial cells in the human gut as there are cells in the whole human body. Totalling roughly 100 trillion microbes representing as many as 5,000 different species and weighing approximately 2 kilograms. So this means, if an alien species were – with out any prior knowledge – to probe a human by vaporising the unfortunate individual and then examining the constituent bits (much like many an analytical science approach we ourselves may adopt) they would reach the conclusion that a person is essentially a large pile of bacteria with a small infection of ‘human’ contaminating it.

Cheers everyone! Drink up.

The microbiome is defined as all the bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea, and eukaryotes that inhabit the human body. The gut microbiome in particular is now being considered a separate organ with distinct metabolic and immune activity. And this brings us neatly to our turd-polishing. It is, we now know, incredibly important for human health. It has even been found to synthesize neurotransmitters such as serotonin, enzymes and vitamins like vitamin K and be involved with immune and metabolic functions.

For these reasons – and potentially many more as yet unidentified – that the medical community has taken an interest in faecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant. This is the process of transplantation of faecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient via enema, nasogastric tube or colonoscopy. Hard not to wince as you read that right? But uncomfortable glances aside – it has been the single most successful treatment for patients with antibiotic resistant C. difficile to date.

Thing is – when the medical community gets interested in something, business is very swift to follow. There is now a deluge of businesses trying to create – and sell – medications that repopulate the microbiome. They all essentially want to out-do the relatively lo-fi world of FMT with a biotech solution. Seres Therapeutics, Vedanta Biosciences, and Rebiotix are all examples of companies working to show how much they give sh*it about human health. As it were.

One of the most interesting in a company called NuBiyota, who have not only have the advantage of founder Dr Emma Allen-Vercoe – a definite star in the human microbiome world ­– but also something they bill as an ‘Innovative Microbiome Therapeutics Platform’. That, to the likes of us at least, is a mechanical colon that she’s set up in her lab at the University of Guelph.

Known as Robogut to Dr Allen-Vercoe, this is essentially a highly modified and perfected anaerobic incubator that allows her to tweak various conditions to give her control over the constituents of the microbiome within. And it is that control which is key – human waste, while it can be an effective treatment, is at best unpredictable stuff. Rather than be at the whim of a donors bowel, we would be much better off with microbiome-medications that we can control much more closely. She is betting her business on that – and we think she is very likely to be successful.

So, can you polish a turd? No – but why would you want to when you have a machine that defecates pure gold?

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