What You Need to Know About Phage Therapy

 

Enterobacteria

Written by Michael Bohl, Dr. Oz Show Medical Unit

On our recent show about antibiotic resistance, our guest talked about how her antibiotic resistant infection had been cured by phage therapy. In the Western world many doctors, including Dr. Oz, aren’t too familiar with this treatment. So what exactly is it? We did a little digging to better inform you.

What is it?

The increasing problem of antibiotic resistance has created an urgent need for another way to combat bacterial infections. Many are looking to phage therapy as the answer. Bacteriophages – or phages, for short – are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Just as a human can get sick with a viral infection, bacteria can also get sick with a viral infection. Certain phages naturally target one specific type of bacteria. They attach to its surface, insert their DNA into it, and then replicate inside the bacterial cell until it explodes. The good news is that these viruses that infect bacterial cells do not infect human cells. Because of this, it is believed that phages may be extremely useful in combatting bacterial infections. Research thus far, including many clinical trials, confirms that phages are effective at killing bacteria and that their use is probably safe in humans with limited (if any) negative side effects. In the case of our guest, her therapy was administered through a tube in her nose to target the area where her infection was concentrated. Phage therapy is administered differently for everyone depending on their infection.

History

During the Cold War, while the West was developing antibiotics to fight bacterial infections, people behind the Iron Curtain were cut off from these advances and had to employ their own methods to combat disease. Scientists east of the Berlin Wall turned to bacteriophages. Many studies were done looking at the potential for bacteriophages to treat bacterial infections, and many papers showing their efficacy were published, particularly in Russia, Poland, and the country of Georgia. Bacteriophage therapy is now regularly used in parts of Eastern Europe, but not in the West. There are many reasons for this. One is that the old studies done on these therapies aren’t sufficient to meet our modern safety standards, making them unlikely to be approved for use the government. There is also a general mistrust among the Western public surrounding viruses, and drug companies have been unwilling to take on the financial burdens that would go along with developing phage therapy.

Why is this treatment potentially exciting?

The more we use antibiotics, the more the bacteria exposed to these drugs develop defenses against them. Eventually our antibiotics become less effective or stop working altogether. While scientists are looking for and developing new antibiotics, resistance is developing faster than new drugs. Phages are highly specific at targeting the desired pathogenic bacteria and are also rapidly modifiable. So while bacteria can also eventually become resistant to phages, these viruses can be changed to combat evolving bacterial threats.

References

  1. Bacteriophage Therapy:
  2. Phage therapy gets revitalized: http://www.nature.com/news/phage-therapy-gets-revitalized-1.15348