Due to the emerging crisis of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the biotech world is reaching out to bacteriophages – viruses retrieved from sewers and other dirty waterways – for their bacteria killing abilities.
These phages are natural killers of bacteria and have been used in Russia and Eastern European countries for many years.
After the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940’s, doctors in the Western World stopped using phages. Sadly, our own misuse and overuse of antibiotics in medicine and primarily to fatten factory farmed animals in their feed, has pushed us into a health crisis that is only going to get worse.
According to this analysis from the UK, it is estimated that worldwide microbial resistance kills 700,000 people each year – with 50,000 in the US and Europe. The prediction is dire – if we fail to address this problem, by the year 2050 we could be looking at 10 million extra deaths each year. The economic cost of this crisis could reach $100 trillion.
This study published in the Lancet in 2015 found that,
… between 38·7% and 50·9% of pathogens causing surgical site infections and 26·8% of pathogens causing infections after chemotherapy are resistant to standard prophylactic antibiotics in the USA. A 30% reduction in the efficacy of antibiotic prophylaxis for these procedures would result in 120,000 additional surgical site infections and infections after chemotherapy per year in the USA…
With little on the horizon for new lines of antibiotics, scientists are looking back at an old and forgotten treatment.
Phages are more plentiful than any other life form on earth. They live in soil, sewage and on skin. They are tiny – about 1% the size of bacteria. They are harmless to humans but lethal to bacteria.
That’s the critical part – they are harmless to humans but devastating to bacteria. They are further especially useful in that specific phages can be extremely specific to certain bacteria.
Phages come in different sizes and shapes and some have a needle-like tail that they use to pierce the bacteria, enter it, reproduce and eventually cause the bacterial cell to burst open and die.
Seems simple enough. But, of course, here in the US, we need multi-center, randomized, placebo controlled trials that will take years. Yes, we do need these trials but we need them sooner than later.
In France they are testing phages for burn victims, who are at risk of dying from antibiotic resistant bacteria – specifically Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Escherichia coli. They are using the precise phages that target these particular bacteria.
The animal studies revealed 100% survival rates with phage treatment. On to the human trials which will be conducted over 3 years with burn victims. So far results look good. (source).
In this review article published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in 2001, phage therapy is reviewed and emphasis is made on the rather urgent need to turn to this under-utilized and under-studied therapy, due to the emergence of antibiotic resistance.
That article was in 2001. Here we are, 15 years later when conditions of antibiotic resistance are much worse.
Not only has overuse of antibiotics created an antibiotic resistance emergency, it has also lead to infections of C. difficile as a result of simply taking antibiotics. The antibiotics assault the gut bacteria of a person taking them and that allows for more pathogenic and resistant strains (such as C. diff) to flourish.
By now you must have heard about a new treatment for this intestinal infection, (C. diff) called Fecal Microbial Transplant. It was developed out of a need, because in some people, a C. diff infection can recur chronically, after antibiotic treatment.
This is a procedure where donor feces are transplanted into the colon of a person suffering from this bacterial infection. While using poop may be off putting, it works and has been used to CURE infections from the dangerous Clostridium difficile bacteria.
Clostridium difficile is rampant in nursing homes, rehab centers and hospitals. In the United States, more than 300,000 patients in hospitals contract C. difficile each year, and researchers estimate that the total number of cases, in and out of hospitals, may be three million. In recent years there have been several virulent strains appearing.
This study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, January 2013, found that 15 out of 16 people who were suffering from recurring C. diff infections were cured after FMT. They compared this group with two other groups of patients who were given antibiotics. The antibiotics cured 3 out of 13 in one groups and 4 out of 13 in the other group. The study was stopped after an interim analysis. Clearly the FMT group was benefiting from the treatment.
The researchers concluded that,
The infusion of donor feces was significantly more effective for the treatment of recurrent C. difficile infection than the use of vancomycin.
There has been much discussion on the web about the use of fecal transplants for other bowel disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease as well as metabolic issues, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and neurological conditions including multiple sclerosis and Parkinsons.
Fecal Tranplants are being used very successfully by Professor Thomas Borody, at the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Five Dock, Sydney. He uses them to treat gut conditions such as colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome as well as Clostridium difficile.
I can get behind these new procedures. We know how important gut bacteria are to our health. It makes a lot of sense to use good poop and/or other microbes like phages to cure what conventional medicine can’t.
Would you use FMT, or phage therapy if you had a digestive disease or infection? Leave a comment and let me know!
Just to let you know, there is an exciting upcoming online conference call the Microbiome Medicine Summit. There will be 33 scientists and experts in the field speaking about the cutting edge science and manipulation of the microbiome for therapeutic purposes.
I can’t wait for this important event!
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