Saturday, April 08, 2006

Viruses to kill bacteria

The previous story got me thinking about the whole antibiotic resistance thing, and of course all the problems that has caused with superbugs (bacteria resistant to all conventionally avialable treatments, and then some). A possible development I read about a long time ago (last year sometime) is using viruses to kill bacteria. Some of you might be thinking, if viruses are given to people couldn't they infect human cells (like bird flu crossing to humans)?

It turns out that there are viruses that infect only bacteria, known as bacteriophages. These 'phages' have evolved to infect only particular bacterial strains, and are very specific, attacking only bacteria and leaving all other cells unharmed. In fact, they do this job so well some phages are used in molecular biology labs to introduce new genetic information into bacteria, changing the basic instructions of life. The advantages these phage have over antibiotics are two fold,

1 - The phage will not infect human cells, thereby negating toxic side effects commonly encountered with conventional treatments.

2 - They infect only specific bacteria, making it possible to kill only the bacteria actually causing the infection, leaving the 'good bacteria' alone, making things easier overall on our digestive tracts (as we depend on many bacteria for certain nutrients).

Of course, pure strains of phage would have to be developed for the most common infectious bacterial strains, and it is likely new phages would have to be continuously developed, as the phage/bacterial relationship is much like that between humans and viruses, with each changing and evolving over time. And bacterial identification methods would have to be improved, either using techniques like transcriptomics or mass spectrometry in order to make treatment very specific.

The first time I saw this mentioned was a 2003 article that predicted possible treatments by 2004. I haven't heard anything in the mainstream news yet, but it certainly provides possible alternatives. Let's hope there is something soon, before the bacteria start to win.

A really good reference article can be found here.

[Listening to: Beautiful Sound - Newsboys - WOW 2001 Blue (6:21)]

Science / Tech News_

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