Can Fecal Transplants Help To Extend Life?
Some relationships within the body can be short-lived while others are for life such as the mutually beneficial relationship with the trillions of bacteria residing in the gut. As we age the relationship between you and your microbiome can become unbalanced. A new animal study published in Nature Medicine suggests that ageing can change the microbiome and in some cases, a fecal transplant may restore the balance.
Using fecal microbiota transplants from a healthy person to treat an ill patient is not new, in fact, the earliest known therapy account dates back to fourth-century China. Fast forward to more recent years and clinical trials have shown that fecal transplants are an effective treatment for stubborn Clostridium difficile infections, and this therapy has been used for inflammatory bowel disease as well as constipation.
Researchers at the University of Oviedo Spain knew that ageing and related disease will often go hand in hand with intestinal dysbiosis, as such they examined the microbiota of 5 children with progeria which is a disorder that causes premature ageing and death as well as examining the microbiota of mice genetically modified to exhibit progeria like symptoms.
As their disease progressed the children and animals developed increasingly severe intestinal dysbiosis. Upon examining the microbiota of 17 centenarians the researchers were not able to find any signs of dysbiosis, rather the group of longevity warriors had healthy microbiomes with a lot of bacteria from the phylum Verrucomicrobia being found.
To investigate if changing the microbiome of the progeria like mice made a difference in the progression of disease, bacteria was taken from the feces of healthy mice and transplanted into the guts of the ill mice. The progression of symptoms in the treated mice began to slow down within a few weeks; they didn’t lose weight as quickly or experience low blood sugar like their untreated counterparts. According to the researchers, the treated mice also lived almost 15% longer on average than the untreated counterparts, living 160 days vs 141 days.
“The possibility to … actually expand life span is really amazing,” says biologist Clea Bárcena, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U. K.
When healthy mice were given fecal transplants from the mice with symptoms of progeria their health degraded, while they did not display typical symptoms of the disease they gained weight and had slower metabolism than the control mice without transplants or disease.
Bacterium from the Verrucomicrobia phylum, Akkermansia muciniphila appeared to play a role in the healthy ageing process, possibly by increasing the amount of secondary bile acids in the gut, according to the researchers. Additionally, this species was more common in the group of centenarians while being low in mice with progeria, and when doses of this species were given to mice with the disease their lifespans also increased.
“This is a nice, interesting study,” says Heidi Zapata, a physician at Yale University who has written about the microbiome in ageing and age-related diseases. But she cautions that it will be tricky to translate the findings from mice to humans. “I don’t think we’re close to having a pill that we can swallow yet,” she says. “But given the importance of the microbiome, this does portend future possibilities.”