The Untapped Potential of Phages for Treating Bacterial Infections

Category Technology

tldr #

Phages, viruses that can kill bacteria, can potentially be used to treat a whole host of bacterial infections; however, while scientists work on finding and understanding the exact right phage for the right bug, there is still another challenge to overcome - the idea of intentionally putting viruses into one’s body is not a particularly appealing one for most people.

content #

Regular readers will know that the microbiome is one of my favorite topics to cover. The billions of bacteria crawling all over our bodies play a vital role in our health, influencing everything from digestion to immune health and even our moods.

Phages were discovered over a hundred years ago, and a small band of scientists quickly realized their potential. Because these viruses can kill bacteria, they could potentially be used to treat a whole host of nasty bacterial infections."There’s an ick factor," says Chloe James, a microbiologist who studies phages at the University of Salford in the UK.

Different species of phage interact with different bacterial species differently, so they must be identified precisely to be safely and effectively used to target bacterial infections.

In fact, you’ll find phages almost everywhere you look. "They are incredibly diverse, and they’re the most abundant organism on the planet, so they’re literally everywhere," says James.

They mostly feed on bacteria and are so small that some need powerful microscopes to be seen. They’re also wildly diverse. "There’s big ones, small ones, lytic ones, temperate ones, DNA phages, RNA phages," says James.

RNA virus-based phage therapy is an increasingly popular cancer treatment.

It's complicated, partly because there are so many phages, and partly because they all appear to be incredibly specific. They’ll only infect particular strains of bacteria, for example. But find the right phage for the right bug, and the potential for phage therapy is huge.

Take multi-drug resistant infections, for example. These are strains of bacteria that do not respond to multiple classes of antibiotics. "If you can find a phage that targets that specific bacteria, then you could use that to treat the infection," says James.

Phages are believed to perform functions beyond killing such as modulating the expression of bacterial genes.

Finding the right phage for the job won’t always be straightforward. But scientists are working on alternatives. We might be able to engineer phages, for example, providing them with the genes they need to infect the specific bacteria we want to kill. It might also be easier to make use of the chemicals phages make, rather than the viruses themselves. Phages make enzymes that rip holes in the walls of bacterial cells, bursting them open. We might be able to treat people with those specific enzymes, says James.

Bacteriophages that have naturally evolved to target particular bacteria are often referred to as “lytic” phages.

Once research does make more headway, there’s another challenge to overcome. The idea of intentionally putting viruses into your body is not a particularly appealing one for most people.

"We need to stop being so afraid of phages and see what they can do for us," says James.

--- Read more from Tech Review's archive: ------ From around the web --- .

hashtags #
worddensity #