Bacteriophages, or “phages,” are a type of biological infectious agent that targets, infects and destroys various strains of bacteria. Different phages can target different bacteria strains, and it’s this concept that is behind the notion of phage therapy.
The approach isn’t new; experiments with it have been taking place since the early 20th century. Although it never really took off at the time, one recent success has left some observers wondering if it could be a viable alternative to antibiotics in treating infection.
According to a study paper printed in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh treated a 15-year-old cystic fibrosis patient’s severe infection with the help of some carefully chosen phages.
After undergoing a double lung transplant, the teenager ended up suffering from a liver infection as well as an infection at the surgical wound site. These bugs failed to respond to any of the antibiotics they were given. The scientists then decided to use bacteriophages as antibiotics to kill these highly drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
Although they found three bacteriophages that could be useful, only one ended up proving effective at infecting the bacteria they were targeting. They then modified the genomes of the other two phages to make them more effective against the target bacteria.
After being given doses containing a billion phage particles twice a day for six weeks, the liver infection was nearly completely gone. But could this type of success be repeated on a broader scale?
Of course, the answer is never quite that easy. There are a lot of problems with this procedure, especially when you get into modifying genomes; GM mosquitoes, we’re looking at you.
First, it’s complicated to find the right phage strains to treat a particular infection. Experts point out that they are narrow spectrum agents and dozens of strains could be needed to address the sources of an infection.
It’s difficult to prepare phages for use in people, and the dose or amount that should be used is not known, nor can scientists say for sure how long it may take to work. It’s far from a one-size-fits-all solution.
On top of that, phages clear quickly from the bloodstream and spur an immune system response, which means it could be difficult to use this approach for systemic infections and patients wouldn’t be able to use the same treatment a second time. What could happen to a person if their immune system becomes imbalanced or overreacts to phage therapy?
Another issue is that there simply might not be enough different types of phages to treat every bacterial infection out there, and some phages could even cause their target bacteria to become resistant, which means we’re right back at square one.
In fact, this type of therapy has not been approved in the U.S. or Europe; it has only been used on a few rare occasions on an experimental basis. One big reason for this is that the safety of this method needs more research.
Although the prospect of addressing antibiotic resistance is a welcome one, we simply don’t know enough about phage therapy yet. Much like vaping, 3G/4G/5G technology, and genetically modified crops, the real dangers might only become known when massive damage has already been done.
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