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Israeli study mines donor poop for bacteria that could avert heart attacks

Researchers find most of 200 heart attack patients had important gut bacteria missing and believe restoring it may keep hearts healthier; wider trial planned

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: medics try to resuscitate a patient after a heart attack (Chalabala via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: medics try to resuscitate a patient after a heart attack (Chalabala via iStock by Getty Images)

Israeli scientists say they may be able to cut the risk of heart attack by rebalancing gut bacteria — using capsules containing germs collected from excrement.

Just hours after each of their 200 subjects had a heart attack, researchers studied the bacteria balance in the patients’ guts and compared results to those of a control group. They say it was the largest and most in-depth study on the microbiome in heart patients — and that it threw up a striking pattern that hasn’t been documented until now.

A particular bacteria was missing in most of the heart attack patients but present in the control group, as reported in their peer-reviewed study just published in Nature Medicine. The bacteria, from the Clostridiaceae family, is known to prompt production of molecules that protect the heart.

Researchers say this means that when the bacteria is absent, the heart is at greater risk. But they say now they’ve identified the problem, they can solve it by reintroducing the bacteria. The team from the Rabin Medical Center and the Weizmann Institute of Science is working on “isolating” it from the feces of healthy people, and packaging it in pills.

“We’re isolating the bacteria from fecal samples, and will then put it into capsules and give it to people in the hope it prevents heart attacks,” Yeela Talmor-Barkan, interventional cardiologist at the Rabin Medical Center and lead author of the study along with Prof. Noam Bar, told The Times of Israel.

“The hope is that they will change the microbiome in the gut and by doing so reduce the chances of a heart attack.”

3D rendering of a human intestine villi and microbiome (Marcin Klapczynski via iStock by Getty Images)

There is significant interest in the medical community in so-called fecal microbiota transplantation, the medical term for giving patients gut bacteria from poop. An Israeli research team has even suggested that transplants may help with weight loss. 

The researcher behind the heart attack study are planning a clinical trial, expected to start in about a year, that will assess the pills’ effectiveness.

They also believe that they may be able to use their findings to create screening processes that help doctors get a more accurate picture of heart attack risk by factoring in patterns in the microbiome.

Talmor-Barkan stressed that the research so far has only found a correlation between the untypical microbe pattern and heart attacks, which doesn’t necessarily prove there is a cause-and-effect relationship. She said, however, that her team is conducting further research that they expect will show a causal connection.

“We believe it’s a cause — though of course not the only cause — of heart attacks,” Talmor-Barkan said. Her hypothesis is that when the bacteria in question are lacking, people are more vulnerable to arteriosclerosis, which is the thickening and hardening of artery walls that gradually reduces blood flow to organs.

Prof. Ran Kornowski, director of the Cardiology Center at the Rabin Medical Center, said the study offers “a significant discovery in cardiology,” adding: “The results of the study form the basis for developing new diagnostic and treatment tools for cardiovascular disease.”

Talmor-Barkan noted that in addition to the finding on bacteria, some patterns her team noticed in blood composition among heart attack patients may also be useful in diagnostics and heart attack prevention.

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