Sharing Your Poop for Science

You know all about donating blood, bone marrow and organs. But did you know that you flush potentially life-saving material down the toilet every day?

Yes, we’re talking about poop.

By now, you’ve probably seen ads on the train or in your Instagram feed beseeching you to donate your stool for science and profit. And the idea of it may seem a little, well, gross. But if you can get past the ick factor of stool donation, you could make a big difference in someone’s life — and make a few bucks in the process.

So how does one become a poop donor? And how do companies such as OpenBiome use these donations to save lives?

Pooping with Purpose

When you donate to a stool bank, some of your specimen might be used for research, but most of it is used to treat Clostridioides difficile, or C. diff, a bacterium that causes cramps, fever and severe, occasionally life-threatening diarrhea. Almost half a million Americans develop C. diff infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an estimated 15,000 deaths are directly attributable to C. diff infections.

Antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat c. diff, but its antibiotic resistance is growing. The alternative is fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), a procedure in which doctors transplant purified fecal matter from a healthy donor into the colon of the sick patient. Healthy bacteria from the poop donor then establish colonies to fight C. diff.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently allows patients to undergo FMT only after antibiotics have failed. FMT cures 85 percent of those patients on the first try, according to OpenBiome, the first stool bank in the United States. However, the New England Journal of Medicine writes that FMT is just as effective as antibiotics as a primary treatment. Researchers are currently working to get FDA approval for FMT, but as more patients qualify for the treatment, demand for stool samples will inevitably rise.

That’s where you — and your poop — come in.

The Stool-Donation Process

Stool donation is a big commitment, and not everyone qualifies. Stool donors are rigorously screened to prevent vulnerable patients from catching new diseases. Most applicants don’t make the cut.

At OpenBiome in Cambridge, for instance, potential donors must join the stool donor registry and fill out a comprehensive questionnaire. It’s similar to the questionnaire blood donors fill out; it’ll ask you about your body mass index, your family history of colon cancer and Crohn’s disease, what kinds of medications you’re taking and so on. Those who pass the initial assessment are invited for an hourlong interview with a clinician. Then they must undergo several rounds of blood and stool tests. In the end, only about three percent of applicants meet OpenBiome’s high standards for donation.

Once approved, donors must provide samples at least three times per week for at least 60 days at the clinical center. Donors stop by, do their business, and then go about their day. To offset the inconvenience, the stool bank pays its donors $40 per sample. (Think that’s chump change? If you donated five times a week, you’d make more than $10,000 in a year.)

And as nice as cold, hard cash is, donors also receive the joy that comes with helping others and potentially saving lives — all by donating something they were just going to flush anyway.

Are stomach troubles preventing you from cashing in on your poop? A Lahey Health professional can help. Find one near you.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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