Today doctors and patients are faced with numerous infections and diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. What are we going to do? Recently American scientists have “re-discovered” an old tool – Bacteriophages (phages). Phages were known to work – sometimes – by doctors in the 1920s but in the last few decades have become a very important medical tool for doctors in Russia, eastern Europe, and more recently Asia.
Phages are very small viruses that can invade or infect a dangerous bacteria or pathogen such as dysentery or cholera. They are 100 times smaller than the cells they target and kill. These phages can have DNA that contains very specific genes from the immune system of other bacteria. In essence, a specific phage can “steal” certain genes from one type of bacteria, incorporate it in its DNA, and then become an assassin against another type of bacteria. When a specific phage can be identified and targeted against, say cholera, it becomes a valuable weapon that can save lives. As mentioned earlier, phages are widely used in other parts of the world and are used to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial diseases, wounds that won’t heal, diabetic ulcers, and other medical conditions.
Perhaps the first widespread use of phage therapy in this country was and is the use of phages to kill pathogens in our food supply. These phages are often combined into a “cocktail” and sprayed on meat, poultry, vegetables, and fruit. Listeria, Salmonella, and Escherichia Coli (E. Coli) are foodborne pathogens that can be fatal. Listeria can cause an infection called Listeriosis that has a 20% fatality rate. Nationwide foodborne illnesses account for about 3000 deaths annually.
Research is accelerating with phage therapy and much of it is focused on human cures. Some of the more prominent medical conditions being targeted for phage research are dysentery, acne, chronic ulcers, and bacterial “superbugs” that are resistant to almost all antibiotics. There is still a lot of research and testing that needs to be done. However phage therapy has great promise because it does not harm humans but will target the source of the problem, the cells of these pathogens that cause such nasty bacterial infections.
Let’s root for the phages !
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