Phage Therapy: Meeting the Challenge of Drug-Resistant Bacterial Infections

Global pandemics, such as COVID-19, have taught us to abhor viruses. The emergence of new, highly infectious viruses is—rightfully so—a cause for concern. However, despite the average human body harboring 380 trillion viruses, most of them simply coexist with us and are harmless. When it comes to an ancient lineage of viruses within the realm Duplodnaviria, researchers are even using them as weapons in the battle against infectious diseases.

In 1915, Frederick William Twort, an English bacteriologist at the University of London, reported the discovery of an unusual “ultramicroscopic virus” (1). Twort was culturing vaccinia virus as part of an experiment to determine if he could prepare smallpox vaccines in vitro. These vaccines, made in calves, were typically contaminated with Staphylococcus bacteria. When Twort plated the vaccines, he found small, clear areas on the agar plates where the bacteria would not grow, and these clear areas were the source of his ultramicroscopic virus. Two years later, a French-Canadian microbiologist, Félix d’Hérelle, independently discovered a similar phenomenon when culturing Shigella bacteria from fecal samples of patients with bacillary dysentery. He called the new virus “un bactériophage obligatoire” (2). Shortly after his discovery, he found that bacteriophages (phages) could be used as powerful agents to treat a variety of bacterial infections, and the field of phage therapy was born (3).

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In a Perfect World, Bacteria Wins

iGEM 2018 from aboveLast month, several of my Promega colleagues and I attended the 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA. This annual event is the culmination of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, in which 350+ teams of high school, undergraduate and graduate students use synthetic biology to solve a problem they see in the world.

The iGEM Giant Jamboree is the closest I have ever come to a scientific utopia. For four days, several thousand students from 45 countries come together to share their experiences and discuss ways that science can change the world. They present impressive projects with real-world applications including human diagnostics and alternative energy. Collaboration and open science are among the core tenets of iGEM, and it’s not unusual to see three or more countries represented on the Collaborators slide at the end of a presentation. Each project also contains a public engagement component, which many teams fulfill with educational programs or partnerships with underrepresented communities. Continue reading “In a Perfect World, Bacteria Wins”