Microbiome transfer hoped to help gut problems in autism

Researchers are taking the next step in microbiome research, hoping to alleviate gut problems that disproportionately affect Autistic people.

Professor Wayne Cutfield and Professor Justin O'Sullivan smiling in front of a window.
Microbiome transfer is only now being trialled in human patients, say Professor Wayne Cutfield and Professor Justin O'Sullivan of the Liggins Institute.

A ground-breaking clinical trial involving microbiome transfer to alleviate gut problems in Autistic people is starting at Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland.

There are around 90,000 Autistic New Zealanders of whom almost half are experiencing long-standing and potentially distressing gut problems for reasons that remain unclear.

“In this trial, we are trying to answer the question, ‘Can we improve the gut function of Autistic teenagers and young adults?’,” says the Liggins Institute’s lead investigator, Professor Wayne Cutfield.

The study was designed in collaboration with advocacy groups Altogether Autism and Autism New Zealand, says co-lead investigator Professor Justin O’Sullivan.

“The study aims to make people's guts work better. Having a gut that works well is really important for people, it helps them feel good and healthy overall.” Professor O’Sullivan says.

“This study focuses on the physical and gut-related symptoms associated with autism, working towards enhancing the overall wellbeing of autistic people”.

In the trial, around 50 Autistic people will receive the microbiome treatment and the same number will receive a placebo.

The participants will have been screened to confirm they have stomach problems, such as diarrhoea and pain that impact on their day-to-day activities.

They will be followed for six months and assessed to see whether their symptoms ease.

If the microbiome transfer is found to be helpful, it will be offered to the participants who received the placebo.

Professor Cutfield says the Liggins Institute is at the leading edge of this type of research internationally.

“The research is informed by work that started 15 years ago, exploring the importance of the gut microbiome for a whole range of outcomes, immunity, anxiety … and more.

“However, only now are we at the stage of conducting robust randomised controlled trials in humans. Up until now, our evidence has come from animal trials and associations. So, this is really important and has the potential to be hugely beneficial.

Liggins is also researching whether microbiome transfer could be useful for people with obesity, obesity-related disorders, and anorexia nervosa.

The researchers will take samples from healthy volunteers, process it to enrich for bacteria, then thoroughly enclose the bacteria in capsules.

The donors will be screened in a similar way to blood donors to ensure there are no harmful viruses or organisms in their stools.

The microbiome bacteria will be encapsulated in several cases of digestible coating, so they will not be digested in the mouth or throat, but rather when they reach the gut.

The capsules will be administered over two days at the University, with medical supervision, out of an abundance of care.

While it should not be unpleasant, participants will be asked about the acceptability of the treatment.

They will also be tested to see whether their gut bacteria change over the course of the trial.

The hope is an acceptable treatment that alleviates debilitating symptoms that affect a significant proportion of Autistic people.

·      If you are interested in participating and have a diagnosis of autism, find out more here.

Media contact

Kaitohutohu pāpāho media adviser Jodi Yeats
M: 027 202 6372
E: jodi.yeats@auckland.ac.nz