Phage Therapy — The War Against Superbugs

The way out of possibly one of the biggest epidemics ever

The Story of a Survivor

Then, imagine you’re told that your lungs have been infected by the bacteria Mycobacterium abscessus, a relative of tuberculosis. To treat the infection you’ve been taking strong antibiotics almost your entire life. Then, at the age of 16, you have a double-lung transplant (both lungs transplanted), hoping it would cure you of both the infection and cystic fibrosis.

However, you’re told that the drug you were given to prevent rejection of the transplanted lungs by your body, has allowed the deadly bacteria to come back. And the worst part? The bacteria can’t be killed by any of the antibiotics you took before.

Well, you might have to imagine this. But for 17-year old Isabelle Cornell-Holdaway, this was the unfortunate truth. After her condition continued to worsen because of the bacteria, her doctors told her that she had less than a 1% chance of survival.

For patients with re-growth of Mycobacterium after transplant, in our experience, have all gone and died — Helen Spencer, Isabelle’s Doctor

Then, Isabelle’s mother, Jo, discovered phage therapy. She contacted researchers at Harvard, who agreed to help her. Isabelle’s body was injected with phages designed to attack and kill the bacterial colony. Within weeks, Jo noticed a difference in Isabelle’s healths, and Isabelle quickly recovered and was soon out of the hospital.

Now, Isabelle is learning how to drive and is performing outstandingly well in school. For her, life has returned to almost normal.

This story shows that phage therapy is not some crazy, unproven science. It has worked numerous times and is our way out of the return of an era when a simple cut could kill you with bacterial infections.


What is phage therapy?!?!

Now you may be thinking, “But doesn’t injecting a bunch of viruses into a patient’s body lead to viral infections?” In this case, it doesn’t.

This is because viruses are like guided missiles. They target certain types of cells, and will only attack those cells. Bacteriophages are specific to bacterial cells. This means they will hunt bacteria like a pack of wolves, but leave human cells alone.

Look at how cool they look!

So what can we do with them?

1. Because of their specificity, bacteriophages only kill the bad bacteria.

Bacteriophages, on the other hand, are, as I mentioned, like guided missiles. They are not only specific to bacterial cells, but each different type of bacteriophage is specific to one bacterial strain. This means that one bacteriophage will only target the type of bacteria it was designed to attack, and leave all others alone.

Phages are like guided missiles. They target the bad guys but leave all the good guys alone

2. Bacteria are not resistant to bacteriophages.

Bacteriophages, however, mutate and evolve at even faster rates than bacteria. This means it is very difficult for bacteria to effectively develop resistance to specific bacteriophages since the viruses would just evolve into a strain that the bacteria isn’t resistant to.

3. We can make antibiotics more effective.

When first treating infections, we can put the bacteria in a catch-22, where we administer antibiotics, but also bacteriophages that prevent resistance development, allowing full eradication of the bacteria.


1. We need to develop a library of phages

This is super expensive and requires a lot of work to accomplish. There are millions of different types of virulent bacterial species out there, all of which would require specific phages. After determining which phages are required, we have to develop these libraries in multiple locations to make the phages easily accessible everywhere around the world.

2. We must genetically engineer the phages to achieve the exact function we want

3. The body doesn’t like them

4. We can’t predict the behaviour of phages

But an even worse possibility is the fact that the phages could help the bacteria to develop resistance. Sometimes, instead of immediately killing the bacteria, phages can incorporate their DNA into the bacterial DNA, and enter a rest phase.

Later, they can be triggered to develop more viruses that escape, killing the bacteria in the process. When they do this, they can take some sections of the bacterial DNA with them. When they infect the next virus, this DNA can be incorporated into the new bacteria’s DNA, in a process known as transduction.

If the gene the virus takes with itself happens to be a resistance gene, the process of transduction could lead to other bacteria developing antibiotic resistance, which essentially reverses the entire point of phage therapy.

5. Research is super slow

So what went wrong? Why have we still not developed it?

Because of the advent of antibiotics. When they were discovered, all research into phage therapy in the West was quickly halted, since it was considered to be useless.

Scientists in the Soviet Union did continue to experiment with the method, and even had some success. However, due to poor methods of reporting on the data, all the information is essentially unusable today.

This means, when research did start up again, we were back at square one. We had to start everything anew, from optimizing methods of introducing phages into the patient’s body to engineering the phages to achieve desired functions.

And even now, our research is moving at a snail’s pace, due to the lack of funds and interest in the field. Pharmaceutical companies, especially, are unwilling to invest money into this research, due to the greater economic prospects in developing new antibiotics.

So where does that leave us?

To move forward at a quick enough rate, however, we will need governments, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies to come together and research. Without that, we might truly be screwed.

What did you learn?

  • Superbugs can’t be killed by antibiotics
  • Phages are viruses that only target bacteria
  • There are many advantages to phage therapy, including specificity
  • There are also a few disadvantages, such as increased costs, as well as the requirement of a phage library
  • We need to invest more money, time, and energy into researching it

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18 y/o innovator working on reversing ageing and researching cancer vaccines.