Bacteriophages (bacterio-fahj) are viruses that infect and kill bacteria by penetrating or infecting the bacterial cell and using its DNA or RNA to replicate themselves.
An article in the November 2019 Scientific American tried to summarize the state of what is called phage therapy as an emerging alternative to treat multiple drug resistant bacteria, which means that there are no antibiotics left that kill them.
It’s an incredibly complicated but fascinating story and history. Here’s an attempt to summarize:
Phages were used to treat bacterial infections before antibiotics were discovered.
During the late 1800s, at the dawning of knowledge of bacterial presence, a scientist named Ernest Hankin reported that something in the water of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India showed a marked antibacterial action against cholera, and it could pass through a very fine porcelain filter while the bacteria couldn’t.
In 1915, English bacteriologist Frederick Twort discovered a microscopic agent that infected and killed bacteria, believing it might be a stage of the bacterial life cycle, an enzyme produced by the bacteria or a virus that grew on and destroyed the bacteria. The last has proved correct.
In 1917, a French Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle at the Pasteur Institute wrote he had discovered “an antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus … a virus parasitic on bacteria.”
He created the name bacteriophage, or bacteria eater, from the Greek phagein, to devour. He reported a dramatic case of a man suffering from dysentery who recovered with phage treatment. Giorgi Eliava came from the Republic of Georgia to study phages.
He returned home to set up an institute to develop phage therapy.
That center still exists today in the town Tbilisi and advertises its phage therapies for a host of ailments. The use of phage therapy became popular in Russia and other Eastern countries. It remained so through the Cold War. A large center is still functioning in Wroclaw, Poland.
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The first phage sighting was in 1939 through an electron microscope.
D’Herelle learned early that phages “are found everywhere bacteria thrive: in sewers, in rivers that catch runoff from pipes, and in the stools of recovering patients.” Several doctors harvested those sources for treatments with great success sometimes, but not always.
In 1942, penicillin G had been successfully purified and was utilized in World War II. Antibiotics became much easier to make, store and prescribe and were heavily marketed. The research in the Soviet Union was not shared because of language incompatibilities and hostilities.
As antibiotic resistance gradually has become widespread and fearsome, options are being explored. A back-to-the-future interest in phages reawakened.
The knowledge of phages is complicated, as is everything biological. Presently, the smart guys say there are 19 families of these viruses with several members in each.
The statement appears in many resources that they are likely the mostly plentiful life form on earth, being everywhere with more than 10 to the 31st power numbers.
Wherever bacteria live, phages also do. More than 40% of the bacteria in oceans are supposedly killed every day by phages. All phages seem to be very specifically parasitic to only bacterial host and perhaps a couple similar bugs. They are more targeted than antibiotics, a crucial point for therapies.
The Scientific American article outlines the challenges and current efforts of making phage therapy a realistic application. To harvest phages from nature and prepare them for patients is the first problem. Getting them licensed as treatments by the FDA is another. Whether to use individual phages in sequential treatments or together in a “cocktail” for which infections is another, with advocates for both. To get someone interested to pay for all this with an eye to profit is a biggy. Creating more specific phages by genetic engineering might be faster and cheaper than harvesting them naturally.
It’s a huge topic in its infancy, and lot to “digest,” but a yummy thought to chew on as a potential “cure” or an alternative for MDR bacteria. You could say it’s “a bug-eat-bug world.”