How Viruses come to our rescue in treating antibiotic-resistant infections?


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You visit a doctor. The doctor performs a diagnosis,  prescribes some medicines (presumably some antibiotics), you take those and you recover in a while. What if the drugs prescribed by the doctor do not work? The doctor would usually prescribe a different drug, or perhaps a combination of two or more drugs known to treat the condition.

lady doctor

But what if none of those drugs have any effect on your sickness? What if the underlying cause of your disease has somehow learned to fight those drugs? No known medicine would be able to treat the illness and it would mean a death sentence to you or anyone who is infected by it. A simple sore throat would lead to death since there would be no way to treat it. It sounds scary, doesn’t it?

This is the case with drug-resistant bacteria, known as superbugs. On May 23rd, 1997 a group of scientists finally acknowledged the first confirmed superbug, found in the wild. Staphylococcus is one of such known bugs that is resistant to almost all the antibiotics except one: vancomycin. These superbugs are extremely resistant to almost all forms of treatment. However, there is one medicine that is effective against such drug-resistant bacteria; a medicine that thrives in the nation of Georgia. This is the virus that cures. This is the bacteriophage.

Staphylococcus strain

What is a Bacteriophage?

A bacteriophage, known informally as a phage,  is a virus that infects and reproduces within bacteria and archaea. They are extremely diverse in our ecosystem and are found wherever bacteria exist. In fact, there are more phages in the whole world than all other organisms combined, including bacteria. Phages are extremely specialized, meaning that they only attack and infect specific bacteria and their close relatives. In fact, it is also estimated that phages are responsible for more deaths than any other organism in existence today.

of bacteriophage, T-4

What does this have to do with superbugs?

These phages, are our answer to the drug-resistant superbugs mentioned above. According to certain studies, by the year 2050 superbugs would cause more deaths in the world than cancer. The old days when people would die because of simple wounds and cuts being infected are coming back and this time, we probably won’t have antibiotics to our rescue.

But as it turns out, we can treat these resistant infections by administering the patient with the correct phages. This does not seem like a good idea but is actually really effective and extremely safe. Phages, as mentioned are highly specific and have zero interaction with human cells. This fact also means that phage therapy would have zero side effects.

phages attacking a bacterium

How does this therapy work?

The patients are usually given a cocktail of phages that are known to infect the family of bacteria currently causing the infection. It is usually given orally or directly applied to the site of infection. It is not injected into the bloodstream simply because, for our body, they are outsiders and might trigger an immune response. Although bacteria can evolve to develop resistance to the phages, phages evolve as well.

To add, it turns out, increased resistance to phages decreases the resistance against antibiotics. In short, it is a win-win situation for us. The only downside to this is the fact that we need to find the correct phage for the concerned infection which is a time-consuming process. To overcome this, phage libraries are being maintained across the world in labs and this form of treatment has been getting a lot of attention all over the world.

In 2016, the biggest drug trial utilizing phages began and it showed a lot of promise. This is how the same viruses considered to be carriers of disease turned out to be our new weapon of choice in this war against resistant bacteria.

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