Watch Liggins Institute Gut Bugs study doco on TV

Would you take capsules of healthy, lean people’s poo if you thought it might radically improve your health?

Thilini Vindanelage with one of the capsules she made

That’s what 87 teenagers have done in the pioneering Gut Bugs Trial by researchers at the University of Auckland-based Liggins Institute, which is looking at whether a gut bugs transfer – already used to treat a severe form of diarrhoea - could also treat obesity.

Recruitment to the trial has closed and results are due mid-2019, but this October you can watch a three-part documentary on Three that follows the researchers and four young Auckland women who participated in the trial’s pilot study.

The Good Sh*t took almost two years to make, and provides a rare behind-the-scenes window into a clinical trial with all its excitements and setbacks, intricate logistics and big reveals as the analyses start coming in. At one point, joint-study lead Associate Professor Justin O’Sullivan likens it to a roller coaster as he and fellow lead Professor Wayne Cutfield nervously wait for PhD student Thilini Vidanelage to reveal some preliminary results.  

Our gut microbiome affects how we digest and metabolise (convert into energy) what we eat. There's evidence that the more diverse your gut microbiome, the healthier you are, in general.

Associate Professor Justin O'Sullivan Liggins Institute

The documentary also lets the courageous young women tell their own stories – their struggles with weight issues, their experiences in the study, their hopes for their health and wellbeing and that of everyone else who one day may benefit from this science.

We also meet one of the so-called ‘super donors’ – the healthy young adults who donated their poo. Incredibly, the four female donors in the pilot study went on to provide all the donations for the 51 females recruited to the main trial.

Four male donors provided donations for all 36 male participants. Their generous commitment, flexibility and positivity made the trial possible.

Explains Dr O’Sullivan, a molecular biologist: “The basic idea behind our trial is that by introducing more kinds of gut bacteria to obese young people, it will enable their bodies to metabolise food better, potentially leading to weight loss and other health benefits, such as lowering type 2 diabetes risk.”

Earlier studies have shown that putting the gut bugs from lean mice into overweight mice led to dramatic weight loss.

The Liggins Institute trial is believed to be the first in the world to study gut microbiome transfer in young adults with obesity. The transfer involved safely isolating the gut bacteria from the stools of healthy lean donors, and putting it into capsules which were then taken by overweight teenagers. (The researchers made sure the capsules were odourless and flavourless.)

Half the participants were given the bacteria capsules and half received saline-filled placebo capsules in a double-blind study (meaning neither participants nor researchers will know who gets the real capsules until after the trial is finished – the gold standard of clinical trial designs).

The trial lies at an explosive new research frontier that is redefining our understanding of nutrition and health. It’s all to do with the bacteria that live inside and on the surface of our bodies, collectively known as our microbiome. The Auckland study focuses on the bacteria deep in our gut which accounts for 95 percent of our total microbiome.

What we eat affects the community of bacteria in our gut; this gut microbiome affects how we digest and metabolise (convert into energy) what we eat,” says Dr O’Sullivan. “There’s evidence that the more diverse your gut microbiome, the healthier you are, in general.”

Professor Cutfield, who is a paediatric endocrinologist, says the experience of making the documentary was an eye-opener for both the scientists and the production company, Razor Films. “It’s been fascinating seeing how a documentary is made,” he says. “I don’t know if the documentary-makers quite knew what they were letting themselves in for when we began this journey – it’s been quite a ride!”

Along with the study leads, Dr Ben Albert and Thilini Vidanelage  feature in the documentary. Meanwhile, Clinical Research Fellow and Phd student Dr Karen Leong, Senior Research Fellow Dr José Derraik, and Project Manager Wendy Ranson were playing their vital roles off camera.

The first part of the documentary airs on Three, Tuesday 2 October, 8.30pm. The second part airs at 9pm on Tuesday 9 October, and the final at 9pm on Tuesday 16 October. Seven online companion episodes will be available after each broadcast on, along with the full episodes for catch-up viewing.