Doctors Used Bacteria-Killing Viruses to Take Down an Incurable Superbug

Our enemy can be our friend. Doctors say they were able to treat a patient with a drug-resistant infection with the help of specially grown viruses. Large-scale clinical trials are likely to be needed for these treatments to become widely used.

The cells of living things are taken over by Viruses. There are some viruses that have evolved to prey onbacteria, just as there are other viruses that are specific to humans, plants, and other organisms. After scientists discovered the existence of viruses at the turn of the 20th century, they learned about phages. By the late 1910s, some doctors were trying to use phages as a potential treatment for infections caused bybacteria.

The advent of antibiotics in the 1940s caused phages to fall out of favor. Broad-spectrum antibiotics were the first antibiotics that were widely used, they were easy to scale up in mass production and could quickly treat many different types of infections. They were harder to purify and store, and their benefits were often inconsistent.

In countries like Eastern Europe and India, where antibiotics were less available, scientists and doctors continued to research and use phage therapy. It became clear that antibiotics weren't as miracle as we had thought. We are now seeing infections that can't be treated that are resistant to these drugs. Scientists are interested in using phages as a weapon againstbacteria.

A 30-year-old woman in Belgium has been living with a superbug for nearly two years, according to a new report in the journal Nature Communications. A woman who was gravely injured in the March 2016 bombing in Belgium contracted a number of infections after surgery. Doctors confirmed that she had a strain of Klebsiella pneumoniae that was resistant to antibiotics after four months of treatment. The infection became part of a sticky layer ofbacteria that made it harder for antibiotics to work. It was impossible for her wounds to heal because of the infections.

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After months of unsuccessful attempts to clear the K. pneumoniae, her doctors cleared the use of phage therapy. The George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages provided the specially selected phages. She continued to take antibiotics even though her doctors disagreed about the best course of action.

Her doctors decided to use the phages in February because they were afraid of a dead end. After a surgical procedure to remove dead tissue from the wound and to replace the frame that kept her broken bone stable, the phages were given to her. She was also given antibiotics that had been infused with bone grafts. She would get the phages through a catheter. She was switched to a newer antibiotic that was thought to be more effective against the superbug.

By the second day of the treatment, the infection seemed to have stopped. The woman was taken off antibiotics after three months. She has been able to participate in sporting events for three years now, though she does need a crutch at times. The doctors wrote that there were no signs of recurrent K. pneumoniae infections.

The findings show that phages can be used in conjunction with antibiotics to treat infections, though they may also be useful on their own. In this case, the phages were pre-adapted to the infection, meaning that they were exposed to the bacteria multiple times to make them even deadlier. The process is thought to improve their potency and reduce the risk ofbacteria learning how to outsmart the phages.

There are still many questions about the best way to take advantage of phage therapy, which is experiencing a resurgence in medicine. More research is needed to get doctors to accept the potential of phages.

Paul Turner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, told Livescience that the future of phage therapy depends on the data from clinical trials.

There are ongoing trials of phages testing them out in treating hardy superbug infections, such as those that affect people with conditions like cystic fibrosis.