Contributor corner: Bryn Nelson

Bryn NelsonBryn Nelson is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor with an avid interest in biology, biomedicine, ecology, green technology, and unconventional travel destinations.

Before becoming a journalist, he received my PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington in Seattle, analysing a protein that helps ferry sugar into bacterial cells, making it a potential model for studying similar proteins linked to cystic fibrosis and multi-drug resistance to cancer. He has a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz, and subsequently joined Newsday as a member of the science desk, spending seven years writing extensively about genetics, stem cell research and cloning, evolution, ecology, and conservation. He was one of four principal writers on the award-winning, 13-part “Long Island: Our Natural World” series, which they subsequently converted into a field guide. He also wrote “Saving Bobby,” a multiple award-winning, 12,000-word feature about the frantic effort to save a toddler whose father had accidentally driven over his head.

Twitter: @SeattleBryn

What is your feature about?

In a word: poo. It’s a universal elicitor of disgust, and yet faecal transplants have been extraordinarily effective at resolving a feared bacterial killer known as Clostridium difficile and in improving the lives of those with inflammatory bowel disease. My feature explores why poo disgusts us, how that revulsion may be impacting the availability of a therapy that is winning over once-dubious doctors, what its potential is for treating a wide range of other conditions, and how we might get past our aversion.

I interviewed patients, doctors, researchers and advocates from six countries. I read numerous scientific articles, blogs, case histories and personal accounts, and I visited the office of a gastroenterologist in Tampa, Florida, who offers faecal transplants to his patients. The field trip helped me understand how a transplant is performed, how an admittedly crude process is evolving, and how a once-reluctant doctor has become a big advocate for expanding access.

If disgust is a universal emotion, so is concern for our loved ones. Faecal transplants reside at the crossroads of these conflicting feelings: we may be grossed out by the idea of transferring poo from one person to another, but it can be lifesaving after other therapies have failed. Having an intelligent conversation about when this procedure should be tried, and for what conditions, will require more than a collective “Ewww!”

What did you learn that you didn’t expect?

It turns out that faecal transplants have a very colourful history that dates back to ancient China. That was certainly unexpected. I was also surprised by the size of the DIY community that has formed in response to a perceived lack of attention by mainstream medical providers. In many cases, patients are introducing the therapy to doctors’ offices, not the other way around. Finally, I was unaware of just how many options there are of actually delivering the payload. 

Read Bryn’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 29 April 2014.