Conference Coverage

Fulminant C. diff debate: Fecal transplants or antibiotics?


Two experts at IDWeek 2020 debated the best treatment for patients with the most severe type of Clostridioides difficile infection – fulminant C. diff. The discussion pitted fecal microbiota transplants (FMT) from the stool of healthy donors against traditional antibiotics.

Fulminant C. diff infection (CDI) represents about 8% of all CDI cases and is often fatal. Patients frequently don’t respond to maximum antibiotic therapy.

Should these patients be treated with FMT before surgery is considered?

“Unequivocally, yes,” said Jessica R. Allegretti, MD, MPH, associate director of the Crohn’s and Colitis Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Patients face full colectomy

Fulminant infection, she says, typically requires a total abdominal colectomy with end ileostomy.

“Patients have a quite high perioperative and intraoperative mortality because this is typically an older population with significant comorbidities,” she said.

Often the patients are poor candidates for surgery, she added.

She pointed to the efficacy of FMT in studies such as one published in Gut Microbes in 2017. The study, by Monika Fischer, MD, of Indiana University, Indianapolis, and colleagues showed a 91% cure rate at 1 month in severe patients with an average of 1.5 fecal transplants, noting that was “quite remarkable” in this very sick population.

Though FMT is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for fulminant CDI, Dr. Allegretti said, the FDA does allow treatment under “enforcement discretion,” which means no investigational new drug license is needed specifically if treating CDI patients who haven’t responded to standard therapy, as long as proper consent has been obtained.

“This is a patient population that is likely going to die,” she said. “If you were the one in the ICU with fulminant C. diff and you’ve been on maximum therapy for 3-5 days and you’re not getting better, wouldn’t you want somebody to offer you a fecal transplant and give you the chance to recover and leave the hospital with your colon intact? The data suggest that is possible, with a high likelihood and a good safety profile.”

She said the most recent guidelines have supported FMT, and emerging guidelines coming within months “will support this as well.”

Unknowns with FMT

Taking the other side of the debate, Kevin Garey, PharmD, chair of the department of pharmacy practice and translational research at University of Houston College of Pharmacy, warned against trading traditional antibiotics, such as vancomycin and fidaxomicin, for the novelty of FMT.

“With the science of the microbiome and the novelty of fecal microbiota transplantation in expanding use, I think people have somewhat forgotten pharmacotherapy,” he said.

He pointed out safety concerns with FMT reported in June 2019, after which the FDA issued an alert. Two immunocompromised patients who received FMT, both from the same donor, developed invasive infections caused by extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL)–producing Escherichia coli. One died.

The FDA explained that the donated FMT samples the patients received were not tested for ESBL-producing gram-negative organisms before use.

Dr. Allegretti agreed antibiotics play a role in treatment with FMT, but she argued that the safety profile of FMT remains strong and that the safety issues came from isolated incidents at a single center.

Dr. Garey countered that there are just too many unknowns with FMT.

“We will never know what the next superbug that’s going to land in an FMT is until we’ve identified that superbug in somebody – the next Candida auris, the next CRE [carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae], the next thing that’s going to show up in FMT – until we get rid of the ‘F,’ “ Dr. Garey said.

“[Until] we get microbial therapy that’s generated without the need for healthy donors, I think we’re always going to be in this problem.”

He said although FMT “has an amazing ability to alter a microbiome” it “pales in comparison” to vancomycin’s ability to do so.

Disruption of the microbiome is, without a doubt, a hallmark of C. diff, but we don’t have to run to FMT,” Dr. Garey said. “We can think about prophylaxis strategies, we can think about new drug development that spares the microbiota. The need for FMT might be a consequence of poor pharmacotherapy management, not a part of pharmacotherapy management.”

Moderator Sam Aitken, PharmD, MPH, a clinical pharmacy specialist in infectious disease at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said in an interview the speakers found some common ground.

“I think there was a general consensus between both Dr. Allegretti and Dr. Garey that both traditional therapeutics and fecal microbiota transplantation have a role to play in these patients, although there is still quite a bit of discussion around where those might be best positioned,” Dr. Aitken said.

He added, “There’s also a general consensus that there is not likely to be one right answer for all patients with multiple recurrent CDI.”

Dr. Allegretti, Dr. Garey, and Dr. Aitken have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on

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