Antibiotics have long been the main weapon against bacterial infections. Now a troubling resistance is emerging that could bring us back to where we were before the discovery of penicillin. Researchers are feverishly working on alternatives, one of which could be so-called phages, viruses that infect bacteria.
11 out of 20 persistent infected have been cured
Phages are extremely fussy, with each species only attacking a specific strain of bacteria, sometimes even a single strain in particular. This has advantages and disadvantages: Bacterial viruses can only be used in a very specific way, but they cannot attack symbiont bacteria, for example in the gut, or infect human cells. In the study presented here, phage therapy had no obvious side effects, but it still cured 11 of 20 persistently ill people. In four patients there was no improvement, in the last five there was no clear result. The research took place at the University of Pittsburgh under the direction of Graham Hatfull. The results can be read in the specialized journal “Clinical Infectious Diseases”.
As Head of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine, Holger Ziehr is very impressed with the study. The high cure rate is “impressive” in the complex situation. Participants included both children and adults, as well as various clinical pictures and complex infections. His conclusion: “This result cannot be denied”.
M. abscessus: a nightmare for medical professionals
Treatment with bacteriophages was not uncommon in the former Eastern Bloc, but medicine in the West relied primarily on antibiotics. The tide has been reversing for several years as bacteria are increasingly arming themselves against antibiotics. Scientists like Hatfull are increasingly focusing on the old new topic. He and his team selected 20 people with cystic fibrosis and inflammatory bacterial infections. This is mainly due to M. abscessus, a bacterium that barely responds to antibiotics.
Patients received their phage units by inhalation or by infection, twice daily at high doses, for six months. The bacteria were unable to immunize themselves against phages in the study, in most cases they eventually had to immunize themselves. Why not all participants could be cured is the subject of further research. The targeted use of phages is the biggest challenge that scientists still face.