Are We Finally Getting Close to a Cure for the Runs?

Scientists have grown a diarrhea parasite in a lab for the first time, and despite how it sounds, that’s a good thing.

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There are a lot of different ways to contract the dreaded runs — there’s bacterial infections, allergic reactions and spicy potato chips, just to name a few. But all forms of the runs are not equal. While many can be pretty easily tamed by over-the-counter antidiarrheals, some types of diarrhea are actually made worse by those medications. Diarrhea, you see, is a symptom, rather than a thing unto itself. That’s why, much like the common cold, there’s no real cure for it, and because of that, it can still be absolutely lethal.

The CDC warns, “Diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day — more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.” As gastroenterologist Nitin Ahuja explains, “Diarrhea itself isn’t really deadly, but it can be the mechanism for some things that can be deadly, like fluid loss that you can’t keep up with. There’s also bacterial infections that lead to diarrhea, but the infection is bad enough where it can be throughout the whole body. Or there’s inflammatory bowel disease, where inflammation can puncture the bowel, also causing an infection.”

Because of the varied nature of diarrhea, it needs to be treated in different ways. If you’ve got a persistent case of the runs and the over-the-counter stuff isn’t working, it’s time to visit the doctor’s office (maybe even one disguised as a mancave). Once there, Ahuja says that you’ll get tested for a whole bunch of different types of diarrhea, one of which is cryptosporidium.

Much of the time, a case of “crypto,” as it’s commonly called, isn’t that big of a deal. As an adult, most of us will recover with no treatment at all, just drinking water to prevent dehydration. If you get a nasty case of it, you’ll likely be prescribed Nitazoxanide, which should take care of it by stopping the parasite’s growth and allowing you to poop out what’s already there (the over-the-counter stuff won’t work in this case because it’ll just prolong the illness by stopping your body from pooping out the parasite). But Nitazoxanide is the only anti-parasitic medication approved for this kind of diarrhea, and its effectiveness for those who are immuno-comprimised is questionable — it’s not approved for babies under a year old, for example.

That’s only part of the reason why crypto craps can be so dangerous. Cryptosporidium is hard to kill: It can even live just fine in chlorinated water, which is why it’s able to poison whole populations if it ends up in a water supply. This is exactly what happened in 1993, when 403,000 people in the Milwaukee area got sick from a cryptosporidium outbreak, leading to 69 deaths. It also can’t be killed by alcohol or bleach and it spreads really easily. As the CDC says, “Because the parasite is in feces, anything that gets contaminated by feces can potentially spread the parasite.” And since we’ve learned over and over and over and over again that poop is on everything, you can understand why this is such a problem.

With all this in mind, you can also understand why the new breakthrough study at Washington University School of Medicine — in which researchers successfully grew cryptosporidium in a lab for the very first time — is so important. Because in addition to crypto being hard to kill and easy to spread, it’s also been notoriously difficult to recreate in a laboratory setting. As the study explains, despite the fact that the parasite was identified more than 100 years ago, developing treatments for it — or hopefully even a vaccine — has been difficult due to the fact that scientists have struggled to completely understand it.

Until now, researchers seeking to study crypto only had access to viable parasites from infected calf cysts — baby cows get the runs too, y’know — after which they’d have to move the parasite over to human or mouse cells. The parasite would always die before completing its life cycle, though, preventing a proper study.

Fortunately the researchers, led by L. David Sibley, finally figured out what the problem was: The human and mouse cells used to grow the parasite were derived from cancer cells, which weren’t the same as the normal, healthy intestines that crypto thrives in. So the researchers turned to Thaddeus S. Stappenbeck, also of Washington University, who used intestinal stem cells to grow “mini-guts” in the lab and voilà — lab-grown cryptosporidium was born.

The study explains that it’s too early to say yet how this development might impact the treatment of future cryptosporidium cases, but now that they’ve accomplished this, they can at least begin to move the ball forward in understanding the parasite in a way no one has before.

As for the future of the runs in general, will we ever have a works-for-everyone cure? Well, probably not. As Ahuja explains, “Asking about a cure for diarrhea is like asking about a cure for belly pain, which has a lot of different explanations.”

In other words, as long as there are people on this Earth, so will they suffer from the runs, with or without the spice-dusted potato chips.