Brain and Body

Back to the Future

December 12, 2016 | Maggie Romuld

Photo credit: Andres Rueda/Flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Can old-school virus treatments save us from antibiotic resistance?

Long-ignored by Western medicine after the discovery and widespread acceptance of antibiotics, “bacteriophages,” viral predators of bacteria, are enjoying a bit of a renaissance as medicine searches for new weapons to combat antibiotic resistance.

According to Environmental Health Perspectives, all known bacteria are “thwarted by phages, which are extremely specific and only attack the strain of bacteria they evolved to inhabit and kill.”  In the early decades of the twentieth century, physicians successfully treated a variety of infections with bacteriophages, but because the results were inconsistent, and scientists did not understand the mechanism behind their success, interest in phages waned as antibiotics became more plentiful.

SEE ALSO: Scientists Discovered a New Natural Antibiotic in the Human Nose

Researchers and physicians in Eastern Europe, however, continued to study and prescribe phages while the West focused their attention on antibiotics. Though the research was not published in English-language medical journals, the experience of the European scientists is now spawning collaborations as Western researchers and governments give phages a second look.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels around the world, and a growing list of infections, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning and gonorrhea – are becoming harder to treat.

One of the most appealing aspects of phage therapy is its specificity. Broad-spectrum antibiotics carpet-bomb the body, and beneficial microbes are killed in the cross-fire. Phages have very specific targets, so are less likely to upset a delicately balanced microbiome.

In November, at the BBC Future World-Changing Ideas Summit held in Australia, Heather Hendrickson of Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, described her research on bacteriophages. BBC reported on her work, including her opinion that we need radical solutions if we don’t want to return to a “pre-biotic era where lifespans are shorter because we can’t fight infection.”

LEARN MORE: Next Time You Ask the Doctor for Some Antibiotics – Consider Whether You're Being Immoral

Henrickson described next steps and challenges in phage medicine. Bacteriophages and their targets need to be profiled; and reliable cultivation, purification, and storage methods need to be developed. Research also needs to confirm that phages don’t trigger any unintentional side effects such as allergic reactions.

According to BBC, one of the first big clinical trials in the West will test bandages infused with bacteriophages, in an attempt to prevent infection in burn victims. A worthy test indeed.

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