Antibiotics are often heralded as the most important discovery in human history. But as they are increasingly overused and misprescribed, they are becoming progressively useless due to the evolution of superbugs, bacteria that have developed a resistance to the drugs.
To combat this, scientists and doctors have had to constantly search for and develop new, more powerful antibiotics, but it's an arms race that favors the bacteria. It's a battle that probably can't be won.
But as SF Gate reports, a few pioneering researchers think there may be another way to fight these superbugs, by teaming up with the natural mortal enemies of bacteria everywhere: viruses.
That might sound like a dangerous partnership, like teaming up with the bear to get at the honey, but despite their notoriety, not all viruses are bad. There's a whole class of viruses called bacteriophages that are strictly bacteria-killers. In fact, bacteriophages have evolved alongside bacteria throughout history as their natural enemy. They are the yin to the bacteria's yang, and the battle between the two is constantly waging all around us. The battle is so fierce that bacteriophages manage to kill half the bacteria on the planet every two days.
So why haven't we considered viruses as a way to combat bacteria before? Well, it turns out, we have. Before antibiotics were developed, a type of treatment called phage therapy was widely used to fight infection, but these age-old treatments were largely abandoned by Western medicine once antibiotics were discovered.
Researchers are therefore playing catchup, scrambling to collect and study the viruses that have evolved alongside antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They hope to develop "phage cocktails" as a new (but also old) way to fight infection. If they're successful, it could become the greatest medical (re)discovery in human history.
One group of researchers leading the charge is that of EpiBiome, a California startup principally aimed at "modernizing animal husbandry." First on the docket for the company is to develop a viral phage cocktail to treat a particular kind of infection in cows' udders that costs the U.S. dairy industry up to $2 billion annually. Since the use of antibiotics for livestock is one of the leading causes of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it makes for an appropriate place to start.
It's a dirty job — researchers search for phages in farm runoff and sewage — but the payoff is potentially profound.
"There's a huge amount of money to be made in solving this (dairy cow) problem, but the real opportunity is in human medicine," explained said Nick Conley, EpiBiome's president. "Everything that we do is directly applicable, the workflow is directly applicable to using phages in human medicine."
So far the phage cocktail developed at EpiBiome has been shown to kill a strain of mastitis bacteria (the kind of bacteria that infects cow udders) in the lab. A long road still lies ahead, particularly in regards to passing U.S. Food and Drug Administration muster, but there is real optimism that phage therapy could one day replace antibiotics.
"Intellectually and theoretically, it has a lot of upsides, but there are huge practical limitations and unknowns, but is it worth throwing 5 million bucks at? Probably," said Dr. Henry Chambers, a professor of medicine at UCSF.
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