The People's Perspective on Medicine

How Can Viruses Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria?

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose increasingly serious problems for health care providers. Some are turning to bacteriophage viruses to overcome them.

The CDC estimates that at least 23,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. Researchers expect this problem will only get worse in coming years. Finding new antibiotics has been challenging, especially since bacteria borrow genes from each other for quicker evolution of resistance.

Even normally innocuous germs can acquire resistance, as Australian scientists warned last year (Nature Microbiology, Sept. 3, 2018). Staphylococcus epidermidis are bacteria that commonly live on human skin, amongst many other microbial denizens. Such normal skin residents don’t usually cause trouble unless the ecological balance of the skin microbiota becomes disturbed.

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria on Skin:

The researchers identified three different strains of S. epidermidis that are not susceptible to any known antibiotic, however. These bugs may not cause infection, but when they do, there is no drug to treat them. They tested samples from multiple hospitals for susceptibility to heavy-duty antibiotics such as rifampicin, vancomycin and teicoplanin. Results from 96 hospitals or clinics in 24 countries showed that these drug resistant germs have spread internationally without raising previous alarms. The investigators worry that patients whose immune systems become compromised might die from an infection with a normal skin bacteria that has become untreatable.

Another Way to Defeat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria:

Now clinicians are turning to viruses that infect the disease-causing bacteria. This natural approach is more targeted than most antibiotics. Although bacteriophage therapy has been used in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union for many decades, it is still quite novel in the US.

Several high-profile cases have shown that bacteriophage therapy can be effective even when antibiotics have failed. A recent review in the journal Cell Host & Microbe (Feb. 13, 2019) evaluates the potential for phage therapy to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some scientists now believe that “phage therapy is more than just an alternative to antibiotics” (Gordillo Altamirano & Barr, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, Jan. 16, 2019).

Learn More:

You can learn more about bacteriophages here. We have previously written about antibiotic resistance here. In Show 1052: The Challenge of Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs, we interviewed Dr. Paul Turner. You can hear even more about this serious problem in Show 948: Superbugs, Stethoscopes and New Technologies to Prevent the Spread of Infection.  Our recent interview with Dr. Steffanie Strathdee and Dr. Saima Aslam about their use of bacteriophage therapy to treat a patient dying from antibiotic-resistant bacteria may also be of interest. It is Show 1155: Can Bacteriophages Save Your Life?

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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