Scientists are about to test the effectiveness of bacteriophages (phages) against antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains such as MRSA. A cream containing phages specific for MRSA has been developed, clinical trials are planned next year. If these are successful then the cream could be available within three years.
Phages are viruses that are harmful to bacteria but otherwise safe. They work by injecting their own genetic material into target bacteria. The bacteria are then reprogrammed to produce more viruses, which then break out of their host, destroying it in the process. The therapeutic use of phages is not new: they were used in the former Soviet Union and might have been in widespread use in the West but they were superseded by antibiotics.
MRSA is one of an increasing number of microbes that are becoming immune to antibiotics. While it can be carried on the body without any ill effects, it can cause potentially lethal infections, especially in hospitals. There were 3,517 MRSA infections in British hospitals between October 2005 and March 2006. Treating hospital-acquired infections costs the NHS about £1 billion a year.
Nick Housby, chief executive of the Coventry-based biotech company Novolytics, which is carrying out the research, said that the aim was to use the phage cream as a preventative measure. But he added that it could also eliminate infections in affected patients within 24 hours. “We’re extremely optimistic,” he said. We know we can kill, in the laboratory, clinically relevant strains. It’s a question now of putting it into the right cream, in terms of the formulation, to make sure that it works.” Geoff Hanlon, an expert in the viruses at the University of Brighton, said: “We’re now finding antibiotics are becoming less useful. The climate is probably right to revisit bacteriophage therapy.”
Phages are more complicated to use that antibiotics but they can and do destroy bacteria. It may not be the answer for every bacterial infection but they certainly do have a lot of potential to treat a range of diseases.