Business

In human waste, scientists seek new treatments

Researchers collect saliva, urine, and feces in a variety of efforts to improve health and the environment

“Liquid Gold” -- Because urine is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients, some Vermont farmers are using it to fertilize their hay crops.
Betty Jenewin/Rich Earth Institute
“Liquid Gold” -- Because urine is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients, some Vermont farmers are using it to fertilize their hay crops.

The Rich Earth Institute provides Southern Vermont’s farmers with a fertilizer that its director quips is made from “liquid gold.” That’s a cheeky reference to the feed stock for the fertilizer: urine — human urine — that several hundred Brattleboro-area residents collect in five-gallon buckets and donate in the name of “pee-cycling.”

“There’s a lot of reasons around the country for people to think differently about what we do with our human waste,” said Kim Nace, cofounder of the institute.

Urine is rich in nitrogen and other nutrients that can be recycled back into the environment. Nace’s organization collected 5,500 gallons of it from volunteers last year to make into fertilizer.

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The Rich Earth Institute is among a small number of organizations that are developing environmental and scientific applications for human waste.

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A researcher at Boston University, for example, is using saliva to find a new treatment for celiac disease, while an organization in Medford runs the nation’s only stool bank to collect feces for an unconventional treatment of gastrointestinal infection that involves transplanting fecal matter in the gut of a patient.

The ick factor is high, so dry humor seems to be in order for recruiting donors.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Nerline Grand-Pierre sought saliva volunteers for a celiac disease research project .

“We have something even easier than blood to donate!” the stool bank, OpenBiome, said to prospective recruits at a fitness club where it set up a booth to collect donations.

It’s tackling a serious problem. The feces are used to treat an infection caused by a bacteria called Clostridium difficile. The number of C. diff cases has been rising in recent years, as has the severity of the large intestine infections. It can be fatal in some cases.

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Medical specialists say the fecal matter transplant is highly effective for patients who have repeated infections and are not able to eliminate the infection with antibiotics. The feces of a healthy individual are transplanted into the gut of a patient with C. diff to restore a healthy balance of symbiotic bacteria, which helps to clear the infection.

OpenBiome recruits donors from nearby, at Tufts University for example, but uses a rigorous process to screen volunteers. Only about 14 percent of applicants eventually make it onto the stool donor registry; applicants are subjected to a physical examination from OpenBiome’s nurses and physicians.

Donors are expected to place bowel movements in a container that OpenBiome provides and deliver the containers to the organization’s headquarters within an hour, four or five times a week, for immediate processing.

For each delivery, donors get $40. The company is expanding its donor pool to 40.

An environmental organization that focuses on agriculture issues, the Rich Earth Institute solicits urine from churches and farmers markets; volunteers are given five-gallon jugs that have odor-concealing lids and “decorative sleeves” to disguise the contents. Donors drop off the containers at the institute’s “urine depot.”

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About 200 volunteers donated urine last year, and the Rich Earth Institute said it has more demand for the fertilizer from farmers than it can fill. For now, farmers use the fertilizer for hay crops.

Among volunteers, donating urine is all part of an environmental commitment.

“It’s some part of our culture to want to flush away or throw away our waste, but in reality, there is no ‘away,’” said Abby Mnookin, who began collecting her urine for Rich Earth Institute last spring. “It’s going somewhere. The more we can acknowledge that and try to work with that, the better off we’ll be.”

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
April Sheehan took part in the celiac disease project, which examines microbes in the mouth to learn how to help those with digestive issues. Samples were placed in vials.

While Mnookin and several other donors were unfazed about the delicate nature of their volunteerism, their colleagues and friends are sometimes a harder sell.

“Intellectually, people think, that sounds cool,” said Brattleboro real estate broker John Hatton, who got his office mates to pee-cycle. “But then, practically, they don’t use it because it’s just different from what they’ve ever done.”

Added Mnookin: “If people are really grossed out, we just don’t force them” to donate.

At Boston University, a biology professor at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine, Eva Helmerhorst, is collecting saliva because it contains a small amount of an enzyme that breaks down gluten.

A researcher seeking treatments for celiac disease — an intolerance to the gluten in wheat — Helmerhorst suspects that the enzyme could one day become a supplement for the gluten-sensitive.

To gather her raw material, Helmerhorst teamed up with the Museum of Science in Boston, which let her and her team set up a booth outside its “Living Laboratory” exhibit on Friday afternoons to solicit on-the-spot donations. Children, in particular, were happy to contribute, and Helmerhorst collected more than 800 samples by the time the spit collection wrapped up in January.

Despite the high purpose of the work, the collectors of human waste acknowledge it is often difficult to keep a straight face.

“This is sort of an industry where you can’t take yourself so seriously,” said Laura Burns, who coordinates OpenBiome’s donor program.

“It is a serious disease that we’re treating, but, at the end of the day, we’re a poop bank.”