Last semester I took Microbiology as part of the prerequisites for my impending Master’s program. I was nervous about it. The word itself, microbiology, sounds intimidating. Math and science were never my strongest subjects but sometime since high school I must have banged my head and knocked something around because suddenly math and science is making complete sense. (I’m not kidding, ask my parents or friends how much I stunk in math! ;)) Anyway, microbio turned out to be one of the best classes I have ever taken. Of course, I also had a fantastic teacher who absolutely loves what she does. A student can’t ask for more than that. Part of our curriculum included doing some outside research on aspects of microbio that our textbook didn’t cover. A very smart idea for a teacher to incorporate. One of these topics was phage therapy which I found extremely interesting because it’s not commonly used in the United States. It was something I had never heard of and may need a little more awareness.
Phage therapy is the use of bacteriophages (as seen in the photo to the right) which are literally specific viruses that treat specific bacterial infections. Basically, bacteriophages are taken from sewage or even a corpse (gross, right?) and cultured on a growth medium (agar in a petri dish along with a certain infectious bacteria). From the medium the phages are tested to see which undergo lysis, or cell bursting, and can target and kill bacterial infections.
In the United States, antibiotics have been the main source of successful treatment of bacterial infections but phage therapy is also successful where it is used and could be even less harmful on the body in treating infections. When treated with antibiotics for an infection, the drug not only kills the bacteria it is targeting but can also kill other bacteria that might be necessary in our bodies. For example contraction of C-diff after certain antibiotic causes the loss of nearly all bacteria in the colon used for digestion and absorption of nutrients. Alternatively, bacteriophages target only specific bacteria and prove harmless for the other bacteria that we need. Also, phage therapy would not harm the liver the way synthetic drugs might.
Certain diseases are rapidly becoming resistant to antibiotics, like Tuberculosis and there’s not much we can do about it at this point in time, except scramble to develop better, possibly harsher antibiotics. In the case of phage therapy, bacteria could also develop resistance to bacteriophages but the phages would be able to counteract by mutating to continue fighting.
Obviously this therapy is not fully approved in the United States. In fact, the only country where it is approved is Georgia and areas around there. During the Cold War while we were developing our drugs over here, those behind the iron curtain were developing their own ways of handling the spread of infectious disease. This was one of them. Though, the first step was taken in phage therapy in the US in 2006 when the FDA approved the use of spraying certain meats with bacteriophages to kill Listeria. So why haven’t we taken the full plunge? More clinical and microbial research must be completed to know if it meets US standards and if it can actually improve our health and medical practices. If deemed harmless, the fact that life-threatening, antibiotic resistant diseases could begin to be cured by this less invasive therapy, could be one of the greatest steps in modern medical science.
So, I’m interested to know what do you all think? Does this seem like it could be better alternative for some? If you had the opportunity, would you try it? Let me know in the comments.