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article imageBacteriophages: Something old is becoming new again

By Karen Graham     Jan 4, 2016 in Health
The threat of antibiotic resistance on a global scale is real, so much so that scientists are taking a second look at a therapy that has been around for a number of years. Think viruses that have the ability to infect and fight harmful bacteria.
With an increasing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria popping up around the world, we still refuse to believe our indiscriminate use of antibiotics — either in livestock production or as a remedy for everything from colds to stomachaches — could be the cause of the problem.
However, it is a real and serious situation, so much so that scientists are looking at bacteriophages, viruses that can infect and kill bacteria. These amazing organisms are not something new. They were first discovered by the English bacteriologist Frederick Twort in 1915 and the French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle in 1917.
Credit goes to Felix d’Herelle, though, for naming the then-invisible organism. He called it a bacteriophage, from the Greek phagein meaning to eat. d'Herelle also introduced the concept of phage therapy, or fighting a bacterial infection with bacteriophages.
There are thousands of bacteriophages in the environment, and they are widely distributed wherever bacterial hosts are found, like in the sea, the soil and in animals. They have been used for at least 90 years in the former Soviet Union, Central Europe and in France as an alternative to antibiotics.
So why have we not been working on furthering the use of bacteriophages in fighting pathogenic bacteria? Food Safety News suggests the reason was the discovery of powerful antibiotics. Once drug companies began working to make more antibiotics, the concept of a natural therapy was buried.
Eric C. Keen, in his study on phage therapy in 2013, suggests that because of the hype over phage therapy when it was first introduced, clinical results often failed to match the hype. This was not because it didn't work, but because most practitioners didn't really understand basic phage biology.
Of course, the misuse of phage therapy by uninformed scientists' experiments led to phage therapy being shelved, especially with the emergence of manufactured antibiotics. But thankfully, science and medicine are taking a new look at phages as a solution to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, because this may be our salvation in the end.
Manan Sharma, a research microbiologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says each bacteriophage is antagonistic toward specific bacteria or serotypes. He says there are phages specific for E. coli or Listeria or Salmonella. For example, Sharma says, "you’ll have a phage that’s specific for E. coli O157:H7 that may not be specific for E. coli O26.
But here is something absolutely amazing about bacteriophages — it is easier to develop new phages than it is to develop a new antibiotic. So this leaves many people wondering why drug companies aren't jumping on the bandwagon. Could it be that big pharma doesn't see huge profits from further development of phage therapy?
There is so much to learn about bacteriophages and phage therapy that one article cannot begin to cover everything. From using waste-water in sewage systems as a rich source of bacteriophages, to using phage therapy in preventing infection by Pseudomonas aeruginosa in skin grafts, the applications for phage therapy are literally endless.
More about bacteriophages, Antibiotic resistance, antagonistic, fight harmful bacteria, Viruses
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