In which Dr. Young and I wax eloquent on phages.
Image from Wellcome Images
With microbial resistance to antibiotics growing into a major global health crisis, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, in collaboration with national research institutions and private industry, are leveraging hard-won expertise to exploit a natural viral enemy of pathogenic bacteria, creating North America’s first Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH).
Antimicrobial resistance is a serious threat to modern medicine: As MRSA and other bacteria become immune to our most common antibiotics, researchers must develop new ways to fight these pathogens. One of these alternatives actually involves viruses called bacteriophages, which prey on bacteria. Though bacteriophages (or “phages” for short) are not currently approved for widespread human use within the United States, they are being used under Emergency Investigative New Drug FDA clearance and could one day be used in conjunction with antibiotics to treat the most stubborn bacterial infections.
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, an international team of researchers set out four buckets to gather a shower of viruses falling from the sky.
Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet’s weather systems but below the level of airline travel. Very little is known about this realm, and that’s why the number of deposited viruses stunned the team in Spain. Each day, they calculated, some 800 million viruses cascade onto every square meter of the planet.
Most of the globe-trotting viruses are swept into the air by sea spray, and lesser numbers arrive in dust storms.
“Unimpeded by friction with the surface of the Earth, you can travel great distances, and so intercontinental travel is quite easy” for viruses, said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia. “It wouldn’t be unusual to find things swept up in Africa being deposited in North America.”
On the evening of Nov. 7, Steffanie Strathdee sent out a cryptic tweet: “#Phage researchers! I am working with a team to get Burkholderia cepacia phages to treat a 25 y old woman with CF whose infection has failed all #antibiotics. We need lytic non-lysogenic phage URGENTLY to find suitable phage matches. Email if you can help!” The message was retweeted nearly 400 times.
To the average social-media user, the tweet might as well have been written in another language, but to those who know Strathdee, it was a rallying cry. Strathdee is the associate dean of global health science at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and she’s part of a small but growing community of scientists advocating for an experimental treatment for superbug infections. The treatment, called phage therapy, uses bacteriophages, which are tiny viruses that appear to have an uncanny ability to destroy some of the most lethal strains of drug-resistant bacteria.
Bacteriophages, which are bacteria-killing viruses, succeeded where antibiotics failed.
Swine farmers are more likely to carry multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus or “staph”) than people without current swine exposure, according to a study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa, Kent State University, and the National Cancer Institute in the US.