Clostridium difficile is a microorganism that sometimes creates toxins that attack the inside lining of the intestines. It is one of the most important causes of infectious diarrhea--and it can even lead to life-threatening complications. In fact, last year alone, Clostridium difficile (or C. diff as it is often abbreviated) was responsible for twenty nine thousand deaths in the U.S. alone.
C. diff is difficult to treat effectively--in large due to the fact that it cannot be treated with antibiotics. This is because C. diff is far tougher than the many good bacteria that surround it in the human digestive tract--in other words, antibiotics actually empower C. diff by killing off the competition!
Because antibiotics were not a viable treatment, therefore, scientists developed a different approach. Instead of attempting to kill of C. diff bacteria directly, they instead invested their efforts in overwhelming the Clostridium difficile bacteria with beneficial microorganisms. To accomplish this, they transplanted the fecal matter of healthy individuals into the intestines of infected individuals.
This method proved to be highly effective. However, because fecal transplants do involve some risks, researchers continue attempting to develop an alternative. Seres Therapeutics, a BioTech startup, believed that they had a solution.
Seres’ drug, named the “SER-109,” introduced the spores of good bacteria while also targeting and killing certain disease causing microbes. SER-109 looked promising in preliminary studies, and thus attracted a great deal of attention as it began its latest (and most comprehensive study.
Surprisingly, the study was a complete flop. The pill was surprisingly ineffective and Seres Therapeutics saw its stock fall a shocking 78%.
In the long run, even failures can be learning experiences. The story of SER-109 ultimately underscores the need for continued investment in order to gain deeper understanding of the still mysterious world of microbes. And this helps motivate us to push harder to continue to provide tools for studying the complexities of the microbiome.