Vanier scholar to use fecal transplant to unveil the link between obesity and the gut microbiota

General surgery resident intends to explore how the gut microbiota is related to obesity and its complications.

Stepheny Zani - 11 September 2020

How does the composition of an individual’s gut microbiota (the collection of bacteria, virus and protozoa in the human gastrointestinal tract) affect their metabolism? It’s the central question driving Valentin Mocanu’s work at the University of Alberta and one that could be key to understanding the detrimental consequences of obesity.

Mocanu, a general surgery resident at the U of A, recently received the prestigious 2020 Canadian Institutes of Health Research Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship  to conduct his PhD research, and is an honorary recipient of the 2020 Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship. He’s exploring the link between gut microbiota and obesity by using fecal transplantation in bariatric patients with metabolic syndrome. 

Obesity imposes on patients a higher risk for diabetes, hypertension and high blood cholesterol/triglycerides levels, a cluster known as the metabolic syndrome. Mocanu is investigating how fecal transplantation—a process in which feces from a healthy donor are transplanted into patients to restore the balance of bacteria in their gut—can change the gut microbiota and improve the metabolism of patients with obesity. 

“We filter the stool (from donors who are at a healthy weight) and make pills rich in bacteria, like a super probiotic. Before the transplant our patients have their own microbiota washed away with the help of a laxative. We then provide them the donor pills to take orally, which dissolve in their colon releasing the healthy bacteria,” he explains.

The gut microbiota is related to overall health and has been associated with changes in  metabolic health, such as impairing the body’s ability to respond to insulin (insulin resistance). Mocanu believes replacing the old, potentially detrimental microbiota for a new group of microorganisms may help to improve metabolism.  

Under the supervision of professor Karen Madsen, director of the Centre of Excellence for Gastrointestinal Inflammation and Immunity Research (CEGIIR), the group will be one of the first to study fecal transplantation therapy in a representative North American bariatric population. Without a known cure, surgery is currently considered the only long-term treatment option for obesity, but it is accompanied by long waiting lists and expensive medication that typically cause adverse side-effects. 

If fecal transplantation shows positive results in improving obesity complications, it could become a  non-invasive treatment option.

“If we can use a one-time dose to replace a patient's gut microbiota using fecal transplantation, this will potentially help to alleviate the cardiovascular harms associated with obesity and insulin resistance,” says Mocanu.

The Vanier scholar is excited about the unique opportunity to directly work with patients in his research. He sees his work in the field of obesity, metabolic syndrome and bariatric surgery as having a great impact in people’s lives.

“What I didn’t first realize prior to starting residency is the impact of bariatric surgery on a patient’s well-being. After bariatric surgery, the patient’s quality of life and the benefits that they get are probably even greater than if we were to take out a cancer. Their whole life changes, their perspective of life changes.”

Valentin Mocanu is supported by the Clinical Investigator Program, CIHR Vanier, Alberta Innovates Graduate Doctoral Scholarship and the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship.