As antibiotic-resistant bacteria and severe infections kill thousands every year, we desperately need new treatments that are more effective and kinder to the human body. Could phage therapy be the answer?

It’s the worst fear of not only countless people who are immunocompromised but also their loved ones. For some, antibiotic-resistant bacteria threaten the progress that medicine has made in fighting infectious diseases. In other cases, the infection simply never had a treatment developed. As for illnesses such as cystic fibrosis, mucus provides the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. This also makes it harder for antibiotics to work. Phage therapy, however, might be the answer where conventional antibiotics have failed.

Phage Therapy: The Forgotten Lifesaver

It was 2015. During a Thanksgiving trip to Egypt, Tom Patterson suddenly became ill. When Egyptian doctors couldn’t help, a German hospital found that he developed a grapefruit-sized cyst in his abdomen, containing the dangerous Acinetobacter baumannii. His condition eventually deteriorated and he went into a coma.  Originating from Middle Eastern desert sands, A. baumannii is resistant to all known antimicrobial treatments. This is likely because of its ability to “steal” antibiotic resistanct genes rom other bacteria.

Thankfully, Tom Patterson married Steffanie Strathdee, an infectious disease epidemiologist. She knew where to turn: phage viruses. These are viruses that evolved to infect and destroy bacteria. In nature, they’re found in ponds, sewage, bogs, and everywhere else that bacteria thrive. Phage therapy is fairly new to the West. However, ex-Soviet bloc nations have researched it for years. Although viruses live inside our bodies, it took weeks for the researchers Steffanie contacted to find the right viruses.

Texas A&M scientists found four promising species. The US Naval Medical Research Center found a few more in their banks of phages harvested from seaports. Both combinations of phages were then grown and purified, to prevent dangerous bacterial toxins from being injected. First, the Texas A&M batch arrived and began to stabilize Tom’s condition as each dose was injected into the abscess every two hours. The Navy formula came two days later and was given intravenously.

It took three days for Tom to wake up from his coma and kiss his daughter’s hand. Today, Tom has insulin-dependent diabetes, nerve damage, and mild heart damage from the Acinetobacter baumannii infection. However, he is in vastly better shape than what was previously thought possible.

How Well Does Phage Therapy Work?

In Russia, Georgia, and Poland, phage bacteria are more common treatments for infection. For decades, they were used as alternatives to antibiotics made unavailable by the Iron Curtain. Academic research into the benefits of phage viruses appears sparse, although it may simply be unavailable in English. There was also the stigma of “commie science,” which meant there was little to no demand for translation of any research into West European languages.

Now, initial Western research shows promise, with one paper finding a 99 percent reduction in antibiotic-resistant E.coli bacteria. This phage, however, was genetically modified to only attack antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As a result, strains that could be removed with conventional medicine were left alone. A study on mice with ventilator-associated pneumonia even showed a 100 percent survival rate when phages were combined with antibiotics. Other studies illustrate how difficult it can be to find the right phage for each bacteria, especially since many infections involve multiple species. But phage therapy is highly effective overall once the right viruses are found. Its potential uses include urinary tract infections, inflammatory bowel diseases, and hospital-acquired pneumonia.

New Hope For Cystic Fibrosis

One of the most common genetic disorders in the world is cystic fibrosis. Here, mutations in a cellular chloride transporter result in the production of thick, sticky mucus that eventually damages the respiratory system. The difficulty and danger of cystic fibrosis are why phage therapy has gained attention as a new treatment. However, taking just a few too many can be the difference between life and death. Phage banks must be developed for swift deployment to overcome this issue. 

P. aeruginosa

The higher risk of bacterial infections seen in cystic fibrosis includes Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a species that often develops resistance to antibiotics. Clinical trials are testing phage therapy against P. aeruginosa infection, with the first two patients in a Phase 1b/2a study treated in late June 2022. Lab research shows that the cocktail of phage viruses being tested not only works against the bacteria but also their biofilms.

Mycobacterium

A May 2022 case study was the first to describe phage viruses removing a mycobacterium infection in a patient with advanced cystic fibrosis. Mycobacteria are infamous for including tuberculosis and leprosy among their ranks and are difficult to treat without antibiotic resistance. Jarrod Johnson knows this all too well. Persistent Mycobacterium abscessus infections didn’t respond to antibiotics, and they pushed his lung function below 30 percent, the threshold for a lung transplant. To make things worse, the infection made him ineligible for surgery. His mucus was tested for the specific strain of M. abscessus that was bothering him and screened against a range of phages.

Researchers found two, and after five days of twice-daily infusions, Jarrod was released from the hospital. One year later, he successfully got his lung transplant. This was still essential, as his lung function kept hovering at 23 to 31 percent. One of the best findings was that the treatment still worked even though Jarrod was immune to the types of phage virus used.

Could Phage Viruses Be The Answer We’re Looking For?

Phage viruses are now showing promise in Western research for their ability to clear antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They shine in even chronic cases such as cystic fibrosis, and clinical research is just starting to prove what many in Eastern Europe have known all along. Besides phage viruses, there is a range of powerful silver products that can help to remove bacterial infections. They can be used alone, or alongside other antibacterial and immune-supporting remedies.  The early nature of research means that you may only be able to access phage viruses through compassionate use. For more information on how your doctor can apply for compassionate use, click here

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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