Bacteriophages, viruses that attack harmful bacteria, are gaining renewed interest as a potential treatment for antibiotic-resistant infections. This comes as companies throughout the world continue to face the challenge of finding ways to tackle diseases that are resistant to traditional antibiotics. Phages have been used as a last-resort treatment mainly in Russia and Georgia for around a century, but while they have shown promise in human trials, the treatment is far from mainstream. This is because phages are not officially approved as drugs in the US, the UK or Western Europe, leading to a patchwork of compassionate-use authorizations being granted for select patients.
However, this may be changing; in 2021, the US National Institutes of Health gave 12 institutions $2.5m to research phage therapies. Last year, the NIH also launched a federally funded clinical trial of phage treatments, and another 50 trials are planned throughout the world. Meanwhile, a clinical programme funded by the UK government and an organization in Belgium known as the PHAGO consortium, will to see how bacteria evolve to attack phages.
Phages are considered to be an alternative to the traditional antibiotic treatments that use synthetic products that can harm patients, leading to resistance to the antibiotic itself. Phages all tend to have different ways of reproducing, making it difficult for bacteria to develop a resistance. Critics point out that with so many variations, there is no way to standardise phages. Additionally, while phages are noted for their ability to treat some antibiotic-resistant infections, they may not be effective for treating all infections.
There are currently few rules in place for phage treatments or standardisation, due to minimal regulation in many countries. This has led to some people experimenting with phages without the guidance of a physician. As such, it’s important to remember that more clinical trials are necessary to determine how effective a treatment it is, and in what cases it will be an effective alternative to antibiotics before phages could eventually become commonplace.
Understandably, however, the hype surrounding the treatment is significant, which means in the coming years we will hear more about phages and other alternative biotech solutions entering the mainstream.