Phages and viruses ‘eat’ bacteria to fight antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the rise worldwide and new drugs are becoming more difficult to find, making it difficult to treat diseases such as tuberculosis or pneumonia.

This has forced science to look for alternatives, and one of the most promising is phage therapy, which, although still in the experimental stage, has had successful cases in various hospitals around the world, for example, in a woman with Klebsiella pneumoniae. “infection. victim of the 2016 Brussels airport bombing, this treatment uses viruses called bacteriophages or phages that exclusively infect bacteria.

According to researchers Iñaki Comas and Pilar Domingo-Calap, they have been proven so far to be able to fight the most difficult bacterial infections, especially when combined with antibiotics.

Antibiotics represent one of the most revolutionary discoveries. They laid the foundations of modern medicine, allowing not only to treat previously deadly infections, but also to carry out transformative interventions such as transplantation, the Spanish Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) mentions in a monograph from its Science for Public Policy. collection.

Today, it is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development, and its growth is reaching alarming levels, the World Health Organization points out.

According to The Lancet, which analyzed 204 countries, 1.2 million people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, and that number could increase tenfold by 2050. Urgent action is needed.

“Finding a truly new antibiotic is becoming increasingly difficult, so we have to look for alternatives, and one of the most interesting is phage therapy,” says Iñaki Comas from the Biomedical Institute of Valencia (IBV) and coordinator of the CSIC Global Health Platform.

More than a century of history

Bacteriophages were discovered just over a century ago by the French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle, who first applied this therapy to patients in 1919.

However, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its subsequent commercialization and boom in antibiotics supplanted phage therapy research, except in some countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Georgia, which, despite ups and downs in its trajectory, is today referred to through its George Eliava Institute in Tbilisi. (Eliava worked with d’Herelle and was executed in 1937).

But over time, largely due to misuse—years of over-the-counter antibiotics and agronomy abuses—resistance began to emerge, resulting in longer hospital stays and increased mortality and costs; For example, treating common TB in Europe costs about $216 at the current exchange rate, but $32,433 if the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium is multiresistant.

And in extreme cases, when it is extremely stable, costs can rise to $216,228.5, Comas recalls.

It is this multi- and ultra-resistance, which is not affected by commercially available antimicrobials, that is causing concern and has returned scientific attention to phages.


One of the best-known cases of treatment with these viruses, published in the journal Nature Communications, is that of a 30-year-old woman who was the victim of the 2016 Brussels airport attack, with a bacterial infection associated with a fracture, for which antibiotics have not helped for a long time. almost two years.

After interventions in the operating room and his stabilization, the victim developed septic shock due to infection of the operating wound on the left thigh, despite antibiotic treatment. The team at the Erasme Hospital in Brussels then selected and adapted a specific bacteriophage for the K. pneumoniae”, therapy in combination with antibiotics.

This led to clinical and microbiological improvement of wounds and their general condition.

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