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What is Phage Therapy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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Phage therapy is a treatment option for bacterial infections which involves introducing organisms known as bacteriophages to the body. These organisms kill off the bacteria, resolving the infection. This treatment is regarded as experimental in many regions of the world, although researchers are working to learn more about it, and to demonstrate the potential applications and limitations of phage therapy.

This technique was developed in Russia, and it is most widely accepted by the medical community in Russia and some former members of the Soviet Union, such as Georgia. Documented use of phage therapy dates back to the First World War, when the technique was used to treat soldiers. Infections from battle wounds and poor conditions in the trenches were a major problem for many nations fighting in the war, and phage therapy was one among many techniques developed during this war in an attempt to reduce mortality for soldiers.

There are some distinct advantages to phage therapy. Unlike antibiotics, which have a more general effect, phages are targeted specifically at a narrow range of bacterial species. They do not cause collateral damage to beneficial bacteria in the body and healthy cells, and as a result, phage therapy is not associated with side effects. Phages can also be used to treat bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics, and while bacteria can develop phage resistance, it is easy to develop new phages to compensate, in contrast with the long development period for new antibiotics.

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The primary disadvantage of phage therapy is its very narrow applications. In patients with bacterial infections, samples from the patient need to be cultured and then tested with several potential bacteriophages to determine which one will most effectively limit the bacteria. This can make phage therapy expensive and time consuming, in contrast with antibiotic therapy, in which drugs are often administered at the first sign of infection to start knocking the bacteria out right away.

In order for phage therapy to be approved for use in locations like the United States and Europe, it will need to be tested extensively for safety and efficacy, and subjected to the drug review process used to evaluate other drugs. This process can take years, and sometimes decades, because safety concerns are paramount. Several research institutions are interested in this, and have started small-scale pilot programs, and with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, major biological research organizations and drug companies may join the phage therapy research community.

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indigomoth
Post 3

@umbra21 - I'm actually glad that this is on the horizon of medical science. As it says in the article, phage therapy could end up being an alternative to antibiotics and that's something we really need right now.

Most people don't realize how bad it has become, but there are quite a few diseases which are quickly becoming immune to every antibiotic we have because people don't take their medication seriously.

I read online the other day that gonorrhea, for example, now has a resistant strain. That means if you've got it, there's currently very little the doctors can do. And that's terrifying.

They need to find some kind of remedy that won't be quickly overcome by bacterial evolution.

An organism like bateriophages, which can evolve right alongside the bacteria, seems like a good solution to be, genetic engineering or not.

umbra21
Post 2

@irontoenail - I'm not sure I'd ever be happy with that happening.

I mean, they would have to genetic-engineer the bacteriophages because I don't think they exist at the moment. If they did, they'd already be happily living on people's teeth.

And genetic engineering has a bad history of going wrong in ways that aren't predictable. Like the rapeseed plants which were engineered to be immune to herbicide and which are now becoming a weed themselves.

And considering how easily bugs like the cold-sore virus is passed from mouth to mouth, anything like this would quickly become difficult to remove from the population.

In fact I wonder how, or even if they are ever able to really say they've removed the bateriophages from the people they are using them in at the moment.

I'm glad they are putting phage therapy through a lot of trials before allowing it to be used in the USA.

irontoenail
Post 1

I've heard of people researching something similar to this to battle tooth decay.

The theory goes that you can introduce an organism, whether a bacteria or something else, to a person's teeth, with the aim of reducing the bacteria which cause tooth decay.

I think they might be bacteria who out compete the current ones, and ensure they have no room or resources to grow. This can have its own problems though, as you'd have to find or engineer bacteria that can live in the same conditions as the current ones, without causing the same problems (i.e. tooth decay).

An alternative would be to use phage therapy and introduce an organism that will eat the bacteria.

If they managed to do this properly, people would never have to brush their teeth again.

They'd just get "infected" with the right bacteria or bacteriophages when their teeth came in and let them go to work protecting their teeth.

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