Fighting Infection with Phages

I’ve been interested in bacteriophages for a few years, ever since I first heard about them. This article goes into more detail about why they may present a new and better alternative to antibiotics in the treatment of resistant bacterial infections.

In the 1920s and ’30s, with diseases like dysentery and cholera
running rampant, the discovery of bacteriophages was hailed as a
breakthrough. Bacteriophages are viruses found virtually
everywhere—from soil to seawater to your intestines—that kill specific,
infection-causing bacteria. In the United States, the drug company Eli
Lilly marketed phages for abscesses and respiratory infections.
(Sinclair Lewis’ Pulitzer-winning Arrowsmith is about a
doctor who uses phages to prevent a diphtheria epidemic.) But by the
1940s, American scientists stopped working with phages for treatment
because they no longer had reason to. Penicillin, discovered by the
Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming in 1928, had become widely
available thanks to synthetic production and zapped infections without
the expertise needed for finicky phages.

But now the equation
has changed. Many kinds of bacteria have become
antibiotic-resistant—prompting a few Western scientists, and patients,
to travel to former Soviet Georgia to give bacteriophages for treatment
a try. Phages have been used in the former Soviet Union for decades
because scientists there had less access to antibiotics than their
American and European counterparts did. Phages were a cheap
alternative, and in Soviet clinical trials, they repeatedly stopped
infections. Now in a bid for medical tourists, Georgia has opened a
center in its capital, Tbilisi, which offers outpatient phage treatment
to foreigners. In connection with the Eliava phage research institute,
which Stalin helped set up in Tbilisi in 1923, the treatment center
offers personalized cures for a host of infections the United States
says it can no longer do anything about.

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