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HomeHealth & FitnessFacing the Threat of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections: Harnessing Microscopic Viruses as Potential Solutions

Facing the Threat of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections: Harnessing Microscopic Viruses as Potential Solutions


Cynthia Horton’s struggle with excruciating earaches, a consequence of her weakened immune system due to lupus and intensified by radiation and chemotherapy, took an unexpected turn when doctors proposed an unconventional solution. Phages, tiny viruses resembling tripods, became a potential remedy for Horton’s persistent ear infections that had developed resistance to antibiotics.

Phages, or bacteriophages, are nature’s ancient predators that target, attack and consume bacteria. In a world facing a rising threat of antibiotic-resistant infections, these microscopic warriors are gaining attention as a potential alternative treatment. The United States alone witnesses over 2.8 million antimicrobial-resistant infections annually, marking a significant global public health concern.

Horton, eager for relief from her recurrent ear infections, agreed to try phage therapy. Samples of her drug-resistant bacteria were sent to the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH) at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Surprisingly, the bacteria from Horton’s ear were identified as a perfect match to a rare superbug found in certain over-the-counter eye drops. This unexpected discovery opened up new possibilities for treating the eye infections caused by the superbug.

In May 2022, severe cases of antibiotic-resistant eye infections emerged, linked to preservative-free artificial tears. By January 2023, the outbreak had affected 18 states, causing deaths, vision loss, and other infections. The culprit was a rare drug-resistant strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, never identified in the U.S. before the outbreak.

Horton, despite never using eye drops, had the same rare strain in her ear. Scientists at IPATH utilized samples from Horton and other sources to identify over a dozen phages capable of attacking the deadly pathogen. The CDC recognized the potential of phage treatment for this superbug outbreak, prompting discussions about alternative therapies in such limited-treatment scenarios.

Phages, genetically programmed for search-and-destroy missions against specific pathogens, engage in a constant evolutionary battle with bacteria. While bacteria evolve to resist phages, shedding their outer layers, this vulnerability may lead to a loss of antibiotic resistance. Phages are taken out of action, but specialists often create phage cocktails to continue the attack on resilient superbugs.

In 2016, phages played a crucial role in saving Tom Patterson’s life, who was in multi-organ failure due to a drug-resistant bacterium. A cocktail of purified phages scared the bacteria into dropping its outer capsule, making it susceptible to antibiotics. Patterson’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous, showcasing the potential of phage therapy.

As research advances into “phage 3.0,” scientists explore the symbiotic relationship between phages and antibiotics. Labs across the country are conducting clinical trials for various conditions, including urinary tract infections, chronic constipation, joint infections, diabetic foot ulcers, tonsillitis, and cystic fibrosis-related infections.

Phage libraries are being developed, stockpiling effective strains against specific pathogens found in nature. In Texas, a facility is accelerating evolution by creating phages in the lab. The ongoing exploration of phage therapy marks a promising avenue in the battle against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, offering hope for patients facing limited treatment options. As the world grapples with the escalating threat of antimicrobial resistance, phages may emerge as powerful allies in the fight against infectious diseases.

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