The word ‘virus’ conjures up a variety of images in our minds, almost all unpleasant. A viral infection in our bodies or computer hardware is something none of us want. However, viruses could be unlikely solutions for a growing medical problem.
The discovery of the antibiotic penicillin was one of the most important advancements in the history of medicine.
Antibiotics enable us to treat a multitude of previously incurable infections and illnesses. Countless lives have been saved since antibiotics became a course of treatment.
However, what was once meant to be used as a last resort has increasingly, and erringly, become commonly used.
According to research by the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, DC, worldwide consumption of antibiotics increased by 65% between 2000 and 2015.
Their study of 76 countries pointed to developing countries as the driving force behind the rise in antibiotic usage.
This overuse of antibiotics is precipitating a potential disaster that could reverse decades of medical advancement – antibiotic resistance.
The Threat of Resistance
The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls antibiotic resistance ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.’
By overusing antibiotics we are inadvertently creating bacteria and diseases that are more resilient to them.
A number of illnesses such as tuberculosis, gonorrhoea and pneumonia are gaining resistance to antibiotics and as a consequence becoming harder or even impossible to treat.
Strains of bacteria resistant to multiple drugs – such as MRSA – are popularly known as ‘superbugs’. They are highly infectious, difficult to treat and can be fatal.
It is predicted that by 2050 antibiotic-resistant infections could kill up to ten million people a year. This would make them the leading cause of deaths worldwide, ahead of cancer.
Unless a solution is found the WHO says we could enter ‘a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.’
A Viral Solution
This is where viruses come in, or at least a specific type of virus. Bacteriophages, or phages, are viruses which do not infect humans, they infect bacteria instead.
Crucially, many phages only infect a small range of bacteria, which could allow them to be used to target the bacteria that causes harmful infections, leaving unharmed the many good bacteria that our bodies need.
Interestingly, using phages to combat illness-causing bacteria is not a novel concept.
Research on the subject goes back as far as the early 20th century. Phage therapy actually predates antibiotics.
The Soviet Union used phage therapy extensively while the West dropped it after discovering antibiotics.
In an ironic twist, it is the problems caused by using antibiotics that are leading us to once again consider phage therapy.
Just a Phage
A recently published study by researchers from George Mason University in Washington, DC, showed that phages were successful in eliminating bacterial infection in a clinical trial.
The phages left good bacteria intact and did not weaken the immune system or cause gastrointestinal problems, side effects common with antibiotic usage.
There is also other new research on phages which seems promising.
A group of researchers have developed a method that could help treat antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
In their trial, mice with antibiotic-resistant pneumonia inhaled a phage-loaded powder that seemed to weaken the infection sufficiently for their immune system to finish the job.
All of the mice treated with the phage powder survived, while 87% of untreated mice did not.
The researchers suggest these results could be improved by engineering phages to carry enzymes that would make the bacteria more susceptible to viral attack.
As of yet there are no plans for human trials.
A Final Thought
Phage therapy has its fair share of sceptics and critics.
Their arguments range from economic concerns, phage therapy may be unprofitable, to practical concerns, such as the body’s immune system attacking phages before they have a chance to do their job.
Naturally, a healthy amount of scepticism and criticism is important to stop us from getting too carried away.
However, it is equally important to fully explore every feasible option to divert ourselves from an impending post-antibiotic crisis.
Our future almost certainly depends on it.