A team of scientists at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health have developed a form of “phage” therapy that could be a safe and effective alternative to antibiotic therapy for the treatment of patients with chronic cystic fibrosis lung infections.
For my readers who are wondering, “What are phages?” I will go into detail of these remarkable creatures and what their role is with bacteria. But first, I am pretty sure that everyone at least once in their lifetime or more realistically, once a season, has come down with the flu. The flu is caused by the influenza virus.
A virus is a parasite that only has one mission in life: self-replication. Viruses are not technically alive because they need a host cell to replicate. When a virus infects a cell, its genetic makeup hijacks the cell’s machinery and tells it to make more viruses. Once the cell is full of viruses, the cell lyses and dies, and releases more viruses into the bloodstream looking for more cells to infect. A phage (real name = bacteriophage) is a virus that infects bacteria.
A phage looks like an alien creature from another planet. The phage is made up of a bulbous head and a tail. Once the phage lands on a bacterium, it injects its genomic makeup into the host in order for replication. This process is broken up into two major, yet different cycles: the lytic cycle and the lysogenic cycle. The lytic cycle is highlighted by the hijacking of the bacterium in order to make duplicates of the phages. Similar to the virus mentioned previously, once the cell is full of phages it explodes (lyses) and the phages look for more bacteria to infect. The lysogenic cycle is when the phage inserts its own DNA into the bacterial chromosome. This allows the phage to reproduce without killing the host cell. The phage (now called a prophage) can be copied and passed on along with the cell’s own DNA. Each cycle has pros and cons, but for this blog we will omit these and concentrate on the lytic cycle.
Now that we understand how phages work, let’s look closer into the groundbreaking discovery made by the scientists. Because of the increased ineffectiveness of antibiotics due to over prescribing, chronic lung infections due to Pseudomonas aeruginosa have become more difficult to treat. The team of scientists has shown that phage therapy is extremely effective in treating established multi-drug resistant P. aeruginosa strains. The study showed that phages are capable of killing the bacteria in infected lungs. Especially promising was the effectiveness of treating patients who suffer from inherited disease cystic fibrosis.
By comparing the benefits of phage therapy versus antibiotic therapy, we find a clear winner. Patients who suffer from cystic fibrosis undergo life-long treatment of various antibiotics and often, these antibiotics prove ineffective and have numerous side effects. Phage therapy, on the other hand, carries no such stigma. Phages only attack bacterial cells while leaving the host’s human cells intact. This is promising since these antibiotic resistant “superbugs” are becoming more numerous and certain strains are only treatable with a cocktail (two or more) of antibiotics.
Hopefully, phage therapy will get the funding it needs in order to prove this strategy on a larger scale. Unfortunately, big pharma is a multi-billion dollar proposition annually and there might be significant hurdles to overcome before this type of phage therapy becomes commonplace.
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