Current Weather
The Spy FM

Why Scientists Are Trying Viruses To Beat Back Bacteria

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
October 18, 2013

Not all viruses are bad for us. Some of them might even help up us fight off bacterial infections someday.

Naturally occurring viruses called bacteriophages attack specific types of bacteria. So researchers at the University of Leicester decided to try and take advantage of phages’ bacteria-destroying powers to treat infections with Clostridium difficile, a germ that that can cause severe diarrhea and inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.

Over the last six years, microbiologist Martha Clokie has isolated hundreds of phages that can kill various strains of C. difficile. Now her lab has teamed up with the pharmaceutical company AmpliPhi to try and turn phages into a product, perhaps a pill, that could be used in humans.

There’s no guarantee the approach will work, and so far it hasn’t been put to a rigorous test in humans infected with C. difficile. Still, there are some good reasons to check it out.

C. difficile is difficult to treat with antibiotics and is resistant to many of them. Another problem is that the germ often strikes when people take antibiotics to treat other infections. The antibiotics kill good bacteria along with the bad, weakening the gut’s defenses against C. diff.

Doctors are using fecal transplants and synthetic poop as possible solutions. But Clokie says that phages could be a useful alternative. “We’re simply harnessing the natural enemy of the bacteria,” she tells Shots.

Unlike bacteria, Clokie says, phages are very specific about what they attack—right down to the sub-species. In fact, a single phage wouldn’t be able to take on all the strains of C. difficle. So Clokie is working to develop a cocktail of viruses that would be able to kill the most common strains.

While the bacteria can evolve and try to outsmart the viruses, the viruses can do the same, Clokie says. They’ve been involved in this arms race for thousands of years.

As long as they can come up with the right cocktail, there’s a very good chance that this phage therapy could work, according to Tim Lu, an associate professor of bioengineering at MIT. “If you know what you want to kill, it’s kind of like a silver bullet targeting that bacteria,” he tells Shots.

And delivering the phages to a person’s gut shouldn’t be a challenge, Lu says.

Phages are already approved for use in meat and poultry production. Manufacturers sometimes spray food with phages that target listeria, a common food-borne bacterium.

But using phage therapy in humans is a bit more complicated. “Phages were discovered before antibiotics came around,” Lu says. And they’ve been used in humans, he says. But the problem is, they have yet to be tested in well-controlled clinical trials.

There’s also the question of intellectual property. Phages are naturally occurring, and therefore they’re difficult to patent, which could discourage pharmaceutical companies.

Ultimately, Lu says, “The science is real.” The stuff does work. But, he says, “It’s a change in the way we think about treating infections, I think that’s the biggest hurdle in a way.” [Copyright 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

9PM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center