Bacteriophages: A Cure for Superbugs?

A Bacteriophage | Source: NIH

A virus could save your life.

I know, I probably sound crazy. But a type of virus known as bacteriophages has actually saved people’s lives before, such as Tom Patterson’s life in 2016.

So what would a bacteriophage, or phage, save your life from?

The answer: a superbug.

Rise of the Superbugs

Superbugs is the term used to describe microbes that are resistant to antibiotics. These superbugs are becoming a huge problem; currently, 50,000 people die each year in just Europe and the U.S. from antibiotic resistant infections.

Tuberculosis-causing bacteria | Source: Weill Cornell Medicine

And that could grow even worse. A report predicted that, without steps to combat them, drug resistant microbes could kill 10 million people worldwide each year. That’s more than currently die from cancer annually.

How did we get to this point?

If we go back to the early 20th century, there were no antibiotics. And before antibiotics, even a small cut could be deadly.

Antibiotics were like a miracle. One of the first ones, penicillin, was accidently discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming.

By 1945, it was widely available, and ushered in an era of antibiotic discovery throughout the 40s and 50s.

Today, antibiotics are regularly prescribed in the U.S. Every year, it’s estimated there are 154 million antibiotic prescriptions.

The problem is, a third of them aren’t necessary.

Additionally, almost twice as many antibiotics were sold for use in livestock in 2015 as sold for use by humans. And of these antibiotics, the vast majority are used on the group of animals at large, not just for sick animals.

By misusing these treatments, we’re harming their ability to work.

When antibiotics are used, while some of the bacteria are killed, other bacteria with adaptions that protect them from the antibiotics can survive and grow.

And there you have it: drug resistant bacteria. These could hinder the effectiveness of antibiotics, and create a grim future where minor infections become deadly again.

But there’s a different way to treat bacterial infections, one that’s been around for billions of years.

They’re called bacteriophages.

Enter the Phages

A Bacteriophage | Source: Adenosine on Wikipedia

Bacteriophages, commonly just called phages, are viruses that infect bacteria. These are the viruses that can save your life.

These phages don’t mess around- they’re the deadliest beings in the world, killing 40% of the bacteria in the ocean every day.

Surprisingly, these phages have been known of by humans for as long as antibiotics.

In 1915, Frederick Twort proposed that observed deaths of bacteria were caused by viruses. These ‘bacteria eaters’, as bacteriophage means in Greek, were proposed as a treatment to bacterial infections by Felix d’Herelle in 1917, who later used them successfully in 1919.

Felix d’Herelle | Source: Wikipedia

Research on phages continued throughout the 20s and 30s, but didn’t take hold in the U.S. In the 40s, Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company, tried to introduce them in the U.S., but due to incomplete understanding of their specificity and poor storage, it was thought they didn’t work well.

And after antibiotics were introduced, phages were abandoned in the U.S. However, the research lived on in Eastern Europe, in what is now Poland, Russia, and the Republic of Georgia.

Starting in the 80s, phages were brought back to light in the U.S. Trials using phages began in the 2000s, with the first data from trials being published in 2009. And in 2016, they were used to successfully treat two patients.

So are these phages going to replace antibiotics? Probably not.

The drawbacks of phages

Phages aren’t as easy to use as antibiotics. They’re specific in which types of bacteria they infect; this is good, since it means they don’t wipe out the beneficial bacteria in your body, but it means that you can’t just use any phage to treat a bacterial infection. You have to know what type of bacteria is causing the infection. Furthermore, you need to have multiple phages specific to the bacterial strain to make an effective cocktail.

Additionally, although the trials so far haven’t found adverse side effects, there are concerns about endotoxins being released upon the death of bacteria and causing septic shock. There is also potential for side effects we haven’t seen yet.

These phages can also facilitate the transfer of DNA between bacteria, including DNA for harmful traits.

It’s important to note though that there are many benefits for phages over antibiotics, especially in cases of resistant bacteria.

Benefits of Phages

While we’ve found that bacteria can readily develop resistance to antibiotics, it’s harder for them to develop resistance to phages, since phages can evolve too. And there’s also the fact that, to become resistant to phages, bacteria can’t hold onto their antibiotic resistance. Either way, we’re able to kill them.

Phages also are readily available, and easier to develop than new antibiotics; there are uncountable numbers of them in nature, making it relatively easy to find new ones. Phage treatments also take less time to develop.

Antibiotics aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But for cases of antibiotic resistant bacteria, phages could be our new secret weapon.

TL;DR

  • As a result of overuse of antibiotics, bacteria are turning into resistant superbugs
  • Phages have been around for a long time, but only recently have become more known in the U.S.
  • Possible side effects of phage therapy are still unknown, and to use them you have to know the specific type of bacteria causing the infection.
  • They can be better than antibiotics in some cases though; phage cocktails are faster and easier to develop than new antibiotics.

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Teen lover of biotech, reading, and dogs. Innovator at TKS.