Can Zoo Poo Help Manage Diabetic Foot Ulcers?

David G. Armstrong, DPM, MD, PhD


October 02, 2023

In a striking convergence of veterinary biology and medical science, researchers from the University of Sheffield have unveiled findings that could potentially advance the treatment of diabetic foot ulcers, a condition affecting an estimated 18.6 million people worldwide. The unexpected ingredient in this potentially transformative therapy? Feces from endangered species, sourced from Yorkshire Wildlife Park, Doncaster, United Kingdom.

The Scourge of Antibiotic Resistance

Diabetic foot ulcers are a significant challenge in healthcare, not only because of their prevalence but also because of the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. Current antibiotic treatments frequently fail, leading to life-altering consequences like amputations and significant healthcare costs — estimated at one third of the total direct costs of diabetes care. The critical need for alternative therapies has propelled scientists into a pressing search for novel antimicrobial agents.

A Pioneering Approach: Zoo Poo as Bioactive Goldmine

Led by Professor Graham Stafford, chair of molecular microbiology at the University of Sheffield, the research team began to explore a rather unorthodox resource: the fecal matter of endangered animals like Guinea baboons, lemurs, and Visayan pigs. While such a source might seem surprising at first glance, the rationale becomes clear when considering the nature of bacteriophages.

What Are Bacteriophages?

Bacteriophages, commonly known as phages, are viruses that selectively target and kill bacteria. Despite being the most prevalent biological entities on Earth, their therapeutic potential has remained largely untapped. What makes bacteriophages particularly interesting is their ability to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a feature making them prime candidates for treating otherwise unmanageable diabetic foot ulcers. (Armstrong DG, et al; Fish R, et al).

Findings and Future Directions

Stafford and his team discovered that the feces of several endangered animals harbored bacteriophages capable of killing bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics. The findings not only hold promise for a groundbreaking treatment but also provide another compelling reason to conserve endangered species: Their inherent biodiversity might contain cures for a range of infectious diseases.

While research is ongoing and clinical trials have not yet begun, the preliminary results are overwhelmingly promising. Phages isolated from the feces could potentially be incorporated into dressings for ulcers, creating a novel treatment modality that is both effective and cost-saving.

We often look to complex technologies and synthetic materials for medical science breakthroughs. Yet, sometimes, the most innovative solutions can be found in the most overlooked places. In this case, the feces of endangered species could turn out to be a vital asset in battling antibiotic resistance, thus affecting diabetic foot care in ways we never imagined possible.

The research conducted at the University of Sheffield also serves as a powerful argument for a One Health approach — a multidisciplinary field focusing on the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health.

This intriguing work reaffirms the need for an interdisciplinary approach in tackling the world's pressing healthcare challenges. The collaborative efforts between the University of Sheffield and Yorkshire Wildlife Park exemplify how academic research and conservation can come together to yield solutions for some of the most devastating and costly health conditions, while also underscoring the invaluable role that biodiversity plays in our collective well-being. Here's to teaming up to act against amputation worldwide.

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