Why the microbes in your poo could one day help people to lose weight
Chinese University launches region’s first research and transplant centre using faecal matter to cure intestinal problems
A Hong Kong university has launched Asia’s first research and transplant centre to use gut microbes from the faeces of healthy people to cure others of intestinal problems, and is now studying whether the method can be applied to managing diabetes and obesity.
Professor Ng Siew-chien, from Chinese University’s department of medicine and therapeutics, said previous studies had revealed the diversity and differences in intestinal bacteria of obese people and those of a healthy weight.
For example, the former may have microorganisms that trigger a desire to eat more or digest and absorb food faster than others.
“If we could use [microbiota transplantation] to modify the bacteria of obese patients, there are a few benefits,” Ng said. “First, it is not a drug. Patients do not like to take drugs because of the potential side effects. So, I find that people generally find this [treatment involving bacteria] more acceptable.
“Second, if we can change the microbiota long-term, there is a chance to change the lifestyle and diet and thus potentially reduce the chances of related cardiovascular diseases.”
A government survey released last year said half of Hong Kong’s population aged 15 or above were considered overweight or obese, while 8.4 per cent suffered from diabetes.
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The World Health Organisation says that for Asians, those with a body mass index – a measurement of weight over height – of 23 and above are overweight, and those who score 25 and above are obese.
Ng said obesity had became an “epidemic” around the world. Conventional treatments to reduce obesity include exercise, a healthier diet and gastric surgeries such as vertical sleeve gastrectomy, which removes a portion of the patient’s stomach to reduce the amount of food they can consume.
Faecal microbiota transplantation – where faeces is taken from a healthy person, the bacteria extracted and then administered to patients – has been proven to successfully treat gut infections.
Ng said more than 80 patients with conditions including Clostridium difficile – that results in diarrhoea and even colitis – and irritable bowel syndrome had made a full recovery with microbiota transplantation.
And another study published six years ago showed transplanting gut bacteria from healthy patients into diabetic ones helped them to be more sensitive to insulin, which regulates the body’s blood sugar level.
In a bid to further study the mechanism and find out whether this treatment would have a permanent effect on obese patients, Ng’s team is conducting a pilot study to treat obese patients with type 2 diabetes and hopes to find answers over the course of the next three to five years.
Professor Francis Chan Ka-leung, dean of Chinese University’s medicine faculty, said: “Recent evidence suggests the imbalance in the gut microbiota can lead to many diseases affecting the heart and mental health, and might also lead to cancer.”
Chan said the centre wanted to study more “game-changing treatments” using gut microbiota, with the goal of preserving and improving human health.