With antibiotic-resistant bacteria becoming an increasingly bigger concern, attention is being paid to phage therapy – using viruses to beat infections. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for what can be done with bacteriophages, including cures for things like HIV and cancer.
Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, so-called “phage therapy” was all the rage. “Phage” is from a Greek word meaning “to devour”, so the notion was that certain viruses will eat certain bacteria. And those viruses are called bacteriophages.
The way a phage kills makes it more like a facehugger from Alien than a predator from…oh, some other movie…let’s say Jurassic Park. The point is, phage therapy works. It was considered a mainstream treatment for decades in Europe and Canada.
After penicillin became widely available in the 1940s, interest in phage therapy dropped. Antibiotics were just more effective at wiping out bacteria, and it was also easier to pop a pill than get a shot.
But antibiotics weren’t always easy to find in all parts of the world. In portions of the former Soviet Union, especially Georgia, doctors continued to use phage therapy for decades, and they were innovating on the idea the whole time.
Of course the Soviets were fanatically secretive, so the Georgians weren’t able to share their knowledge at the time. It’s only recently that the rest of the world has rediscovered the advancements they made.
Phages may turn out to be a gamechanger against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And possibly a lot more.
There have been some recent successes with phage therapy that are worth mentioning, including the case of Tom Patterson.
In 2015, Tom’s pancreas became inflamed while he was on a vacation in Egypt. Conventional treatment didn’t help, and pretty soon he slipped into a coma.
But recently his wife had gotten a tip from a colleague about phage therapy, and with the help of experts from UC San Diego a bacteriophage was harvested and administered.
Three days later, Tom woke up. He wasn’t completely out of the woods, the bacteria had developed an immunity and the doctors had to harvest other bacteriophage strains, but after several months, he was pronounced cured, making him the first US patient to be successfully treated with phage therapy.
This example highlights a strength of the therapy, namely, the abundance of bacteriophages. If one stops working, you can try another.
But there’s also a question of access. Tom and his wife work with the UC San Diego experts who saved his life, they were friends, so they put a lot of time and effort into saving him. Time and effort most of us probably wouldn’t be able to receive.
The point is, making therapies like his available to all will require a cultural shift towards personalized care.
Another fascinating recent case is that of Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway.
Isabelle was a teenager with cystic fibrosis and had just undergone a double lung transplant when her wounds became infected.
Her doctors administered a bacteriophage cocktail that cleared up the infection in days, though Isabelle continued needing treatment for some time.
Her eventual cure is great in itself, but the unique part is that the bacteriophages she was given were genetically engineered. This was a world first for phage therapy.