The bar for becoming a stool donor just got higher

Recently, I have spent a lot of time talking to patients, trying to explain why I’ve had to cancel their upcoming fecal transplant. The FDA has ruled that stool is an investigational new drug (IND), which now imposes a huge bureaucratic hurdle to getting a much needed therapy for patients with recurrent or intractable C. difficile infection.

Even before the FDA did this, there were already hurdles for patients who are really suffering a great deal. First, there are few physicians who are providing this therapy. I have had patients drive over 8 hours to come for a treatment that is quite primitive but amazingly effective. For the doctor it’s time consuming and the reimbursement is very poor. Nonetheless, I have felt morally compelled to provide this therapy and as a result I have many thankful patients. Then there is the issue of insurance companies not covering the cost of donor testing, which costs $1,500-2,000. Now there’s the additional burden of the FDA red tape and the numerous documents required by institutional review boards.

So now I must apply for an IND number, which requires that I send the FDA my protocol. On the 30th day after receipt of my documents the FDA will let me know whether I can proceed. When I talked to the FDA officer yesterday she informed me that the FDA is only interested in fecal transplants with regards to safety. They want to ensure that donors are appropriately screened. Thus, I need to send them my protocol for donor testing and then I will get a ruling. I asked the officer what the FDA was looking for and was told that they can’t say but will either approve or not approve my protocol.

Now wouldn’t it have made more sense for the FDA to review the literature and consult experts about what optimal testing of donors and safeguards should be for the procedure and simply require practitioners to follow their guideline instead of the guess-what-I’m-thinking-and-wait-30-days game?

Ok, enough Debbie Downer. Now something positive: here’s an article about a pathology resident at Emory University, Dr. Hunter Johnson, who goes beyond the call of duty and serves as a stool donor. In the article he talks about how important it is to perform on command. I learned that lesson the hard way. When I first starting performing fecal transplants, I explained to patients the important exclusions for donor selection, such as no recent foreign travel and no recent antibiotics.

But I never thought to tell patients that choosing a donor who has problems with constipation is probably not a wise choice until the day the patient arrived for a transplant with his donor but with no stool specimen in hand. Constipation is now on my list of exclusion criteria for donors.

Michael Edmond is a professor of internal medicine and chair, division of infectious diseases, VCU Medical Center.  He blogs at Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.

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