What is Phage Therapy?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

What do we usually use to kill bacteria? If you answered antibiotics, you're right. But did you know there's perhaps an even better alternative? Phage therapy may be your best friend in the future.

Treating Infectious Disease

What should humans fear most? Some of you might think lions, or terrorists, or sharks. But the biggest threat to our existence is none of those. It's an infectious disease, caused by a virus or a bacterium.

What's more, nowadays we have multi-drug resistant bacteria, or bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics (drugs that kill bacteria). This is a humongous threat to human lives. In other words, we are running out of weapons to kill some highly dangerous bacteria because they've evolved to defend themselves against our most powerful weapons.

So what are we do to? Phage therapy, the use of viruses to kill bacteria, may be the answer. Let's explore this fascinating topic.

East vs. West

Up until very recently, phage therapy was virtually unheard of in the West. The Soviet Union, and now mainly Russia and some of its former Soviet states and satellites, was the leader in phage therapy. This was partly a matter of survival.

You see, for a very long time, and for mainly political reasons, the best antibiotics in the world developed by the West never made it to the people living under the so-called 'Iron Curtain' of Eastern Europe. Russians had to make do with alternatives to kill off bacteria and the infections and diseases they cause. One alternative was the use of bacteriophages, or viruses that kill only bacteria. This is the basis for phage therapy.

Multi-Drug Resistance

The reasons antibiotics were preferred over phage therapy by Western practitioners wasn't just because they were readily available, but also because broad-spectrum antibiotics could kill many different types of bacteria at the same time. That means we don't have to be concerned about figuring out which exact type of bacterium is causing a person's symptoms. It's like instead of using precision-guided bomb antibiotics to target just the problem species of bacterium, we used nukes to blast as many types of bacteria away and be done with it. In contrast, phage therapy can only target one type of bacterium at a time and this used to be seen as ineffective, especially when dealing with unknown infections.

The other reason Western medical practitioners used antibiotics was because the notion of using a virus, when viruses also cause people lots of diseases, was unseemly and perhaps dangerous even though bacteriophages can only harm bacterial, but not mammalian, cells.

At first, it looked like things were going great with antibiotics. It seemed like thanks to antibiotics we were winning the war on bacteria, and bacterial diseases would soon be a thing of the past. In fact, an urban legend arose that the in the 1960s claiming that U.S. Surgeon General Dr. William H. Steward said that we'd essentially won the war on infectious diseases.

However, with time we've noticed that, as a result of the misuse of various antibiotics in both the West and East, some bacteria have evolved to develop defense systems against old antibiotics, new antibiotics, and even some of the world's most powerful antibiotics. They've developed multi-drug resistance.

That means we're running out of options to treat some of the deadliest bacterial infections known to mankind.

Enter Phage Therapy

So what are we to do? Well, one option is to develop newer and even more powerful, not to mention very expensive, antibiotics to kill these resistant bacteria. The problem? These powerful antibiotics are getting harder and harder to come up with and they can cause horrendous side effects in people.

The other option is use to use bacteriophages to target the problem bacterium. There are many benefits to this. One is that we don't wipe out potentially beneficial bacteria in our body that actually help us live a healthy life by nuking everything in sight with antibiotics. Another benefit is that we don't create an environment within our body where antibiotic resistant bacteria are able to thrive as a result of this nuking.

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