Unless you’ve grown up in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, the concept of PURPOSEFULLY taking a virus to combat a bacteria might seem downright scary. However, this type of therapy, known as bacteriophage therapy, is a rather accepted and common practice outside the US…and it’s becoming increasingly more common here in the States!
Here’s how it works, in a nutshell…it is figured that bacteriophage material is the most ubiquitous biological matter in the world. And what is it? It’s viral material that is unique in its appetite for bacteria…really, it’s not so much EATING that bacteria as it is USING specifically-targeted bacteria as a means of replicating itself. And there are basically two known cycles through which this occurs–lysogenic and lytic.
In the lysogenic cycle, the viral phage material incorporates itself into the bacterial hosts’ DNA, remaining quietly dormant until there is some weakness in the bacteria, at which time the phage material begins reproducing, creating new phage material as the bacterial cell reproduces. This type of reproduction isn’t so commonly used in medical therapies, though. It’s the other cycle that has shown such strength in defeating different strains of bacteria.
In the lytic cycle, the bacteriophage connects itself onto the surface of its targeted bacteria and injects its DNA material into the bacteria’s cell. As the bacteria fills up with more of the viral material, it bursts (lyses), and many new phage are released into the system, where they attach to new bacterial matter and continue replicating.
Here’s a really neat, short video produced by Kristin Klucevsek, Ph.D. that illustrates all this beautifully:
So why am I talking about this? Because it’s a really amazing therapy that has shown tremendous inroads to tough bacterial presentations, all without the very real concerns of bacterial mutation and subsequent antibiotic resistant strains. Also, because they are SO specific, phages are like a laser-beam against specific pathogens, rather than the shotgun approach of antibiotic therapy, which indiscriminately wipes out the bacterial flora, both good and bad. That is huge!
When bacteriophages were first discovered around the turn of the 20th century, they were rightly recognized as a valuable therapy in the fight against various pathogens, presenting as dysentery and gangrene, and other dreadful maladies as well. However, with the advent of antibiotic therapies in the 1940’s, interest and study in the role of bacteriophages in the West largely fizzled.
However, with very real concerns around antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria such as MRSA, the functionality and usefulness of bacteriophage therapy is having a resurgence in the West.
Thankfully, while the research and use of this type of therapy was largely non-existent in the US, it has been widely available and studied in other parts of the world, notably in Georgia, Russia.
Professionally, I have been thrilled to have this type of therapy available when challenged with such concerns as E. coli and salmonella. And bacteriophage therapy is increasingly used in the pursuit of safer food production, either before or after harvest, to reduce potential infection from such pathogens as E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella and listeria.
In this age of concern and respect for our gut health and its role in our overall wellness, as well as dodging the bullets of lethal antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, it is great to know that there are other potent therapies that do what we wish them to do, without apparent major collateral damage in the pursuit of clearing a bacterial infection.