Phages: The Killer cure for bacteria

Phages - bacteriophage

Phages are a nickname for Bacteriapahages. They are viruses that infect and destroy bacteria!

Get your tin foil hats on because these bad boys phages are something straight out of a sci-fi movie. These microscopic viruses are EVERYWHERE! They live in our oceans, soils, sewers and even our bodies. Anywhere you have bacteria these viruses will be there eating them.

Pelagibacter ubique is often cited as the most common organism ever: it’s a third of all the single-celled organisms in the ocean. But, as is always the case, something eats P. unique. In fact, four different viruses parasitize this one species. Although there is a debate as to whether  phages are “living things”, they are considered the most abundant life form on earth.

phages_on_bacterium

This sounds scary though, aren’t viruses bad and dangerous?

Viruses are assholes, they can make you sick and be hard to kill but just like bacteria, not all are bad. Phages are specific to a certain type of bacteria. A phage that infects E. coli for instance, will not infect anthrax bacteria. Since bacteriophages do not infect human cells, they have been used in medical therapies to treat bacterial diseases. They are so harmless that there are hospitals that will spray down their rooms and equipment with a phage solution. They are even safe enough to ingest!

History

In 1896, Ernest Hanbury Hankin reported that something in the waters of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India. In 1915, British bacteriologist Frederick Twort, discovered a small agent that infected and killed bacteria. Twort’s work was interrupted by the onset of World War I and shortage of funding. Independently, French-Canadian microbiologist Félix d’Hérelle announced in 1917, that he had discovered “an invisible, antagonistic microbe of the dysentery bacillus”.

This resulted in a great interest in bacteriophages but the discovery of antibiotics in 1941 and that it was marketed widely in the U.S. and Europe, Western scientists mostly lost interest in further use and study of phage therapy for some time. Not everyone gave up on phage research.

Several countries of the former Soviet Union continued to use phages, though, and that practice still exists. In Georgia, about 20% of all bacterial ailments are treated with phages. Russian drug company Microgen produces phages for dysentery and bacterial infections. Polish doctors are testing phages on patients who no longer respond to antibiotics.

Phage-Therapy

The rise of the Superbugs

Antibiotics were a good choice, at first. Phages can require upkeep and can be hard to locate because they are so specific to the kind of bacteria you are looking for so their development was given up in favor of antibiotics. Antibiotics became the cure-all and is now mass marketed and over produced.

Antibiotics are everywhere now. They are given to livestock for their health and are transferred to us in our food and water. Now the bacteria are evolving, growing immunity to even our strongest medications. Its estimated that millions of people die each year to infections that resisted treatment.

Phages can still kill superbugs. Because they are natural, as the bacteria evolve so so the phages. We can even genetically engineer the phages to be more efficient. In the near future we might just go to the doctor for a cocktail of phages and apply directly to the forehead.

Phages - upsetkitten

How do they do it?

These phages can be nasty if you are a bacteria. Their goal is to find a bacteria, land on it with their lunar-landing-like-legs and jab a thin needle appendage into the bacteria cell wall. The phage then injects its DNA into the bacteria, changing it to no longer attempt to reproduce its own cells but to instead make more phages. This continues until the bacteria explodes, killing itself and releasing a whole new fleet of phages to munch on its bacteria buddies.

The best part that once the bacteria are all gone or dead, the phages will have no food source so will not be able to reproduce anymore and is  filtered out of our bodies naturally.

phage diagram

Where can I get some?

Right now there are a few select centers studying specific bacteria and their phages, you can take a look online or ask you doctor. Hopefully they will be attending the Bacteriophage 2016 Event.

I know one thing for sure. The next time I get a bacterial infection, I’m going to insist on phage treatment.

 

 

 

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