Fun Fact 3/7/17: Phage Therapy

Fun Fact for March 7th, 2017 (Republished on April 4th, 2017):

Almost everybody has heard of antibiotics, chemicals that specifically target and kill certain types of bacteria while leaving the patient unharmed. Unfortunately, antibiotics will also kill beneficial bacteria living in the patient’s body increasing the potential for an opportunistic infection which is an infection that occurs due to a bacterium flourishing due to a lack of competition from beneficial bacteria. But, scientists are developing a new type of antibacterial therapy that could treat infections with very few of the side effects that traditional antibiotics. This new treatment is known as “phage therapy” for its use of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) in order to destroy the infection. The basic theory behind this treatment is because bacteria make you sick, why not make them sick? Unlike traditional antibiotics, bacteriophages are extremely specific, only able to affect certain species or strains of bacteria, thus eliminating the risk of an opportunistic infection. Additionally, bacteriophages are composed only of proteins and DNA (some other have RNA or lipids), which makes them easily digestible and not a harm to our body, since we can break them down. Unfortunately, that runs the risk of our body breaking down any of the viruses before they can come into effect, but, since the bacteriophages can replicate while in our body, our body shouldn’t be able to eliminate the bacteriophages before the infection is eradicated. Another consequence of this replication is that we will need to administer less bacteriophage than antibiotic to eliminate any infection. Yet another great benefit of this treatment is that, since viruses are so simple, we will be able to engineer our own bacteriophage for each disease within the foreseeable future. However, there are a few downsides to this treatment. For one, since bacteriophages are so targeted and specific, you would to administer the exact treatment for each infection, and so identification of the infection would be hugely important. Furthermore, like with antibiotics, bacteria can develop resistance to bacteriophages, so, we would constantly have to find or develop new treatments as the old ones become obsolete. Despite these setbacks,phage therapy remains a promising alternative to antibiotics.