The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 1155: Can Bacteriophages Save Your Life?

Our guests turned to bacteriophages to save a desperately ill, comatose patient infected with bacteria resistant to every known antibiotic.
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Can Bacteriophages Save Your Life?

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Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been cropping up around the world. These superbugs cause serious problems, especially when they fail to respond to increasingly potent medications. One approach may be to put a very old, natural treatment to work. The theory is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Enlist viruses that infect these bacteria. How well do such bacteriophages work for killing superbugs?

Killing Superbugs with Bacteriophages:

The use of viruses for killing superbugs got its start many decades ago, even before there were superbugs. Researchers in the former Soviet Union (especially in the Soviet state of Georgia) developed bacteriophages to treat serious bacterial infections. Western countries were developing antibiotics at the same time, so they paid little attention to these viruses.

Now, however, as bacteria have developed resistance to many antibiotics, researchers in the US are taking a second look at using bacteriophages for killing superbugs. We hear from a scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who is developing phage mixtures to treat multidrug-resistant pathogens.

Saving Her Husband’s Life:

We also speak with an epidemiologist and public health expert who mobilized a last-ditch effort using bacteriophages for killing superbugs that threatened her husband’s life. He had gone into a coma and was facing death because no antibiotics were working. So Dr. Steffanie Strathdee sought out bacteriophage researchers who could help. The effective strain of bacteriophage virus came from purified sewage from Texas. The UCSD team that saved his life has established a center further refining the use of these viruses.

This Week’s Guests:

Steffanie A. Strathdee, PhD, is Associate Dean of Global Health Sciences and Harold Simon Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins and Simon Fraser Universities. She co-directs the UCSD Global Health Institute and the International Core of the University’s Center for AIDS Research. She is also co-director of UCSD’s new center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH)  To email IPATH:

Dr. Strathdee’s TEDX talk is here. She is the author, with Tom Patterson, of the just-released The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug: A Memoir.
You’ll find more information about the UCSD program on bacteriophages here.  

Saima Aslam, MD, MS, is a board-certified infectious disease specialist. Her expertise is in caring for solid-organ transplant candidates and recipients as well as other immunocompromised individuals. Dr. Aslam directs UC San Diego Health’s Solid Organ Transplant Infectious Diseases Service, which provides expert care in the prevention and management of infectious diseases in organ transplant donors and recipients.

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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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Thanks, Kathleen, for sharing your experience and adding to this very important discussion.

I am so excited that bacteriophage therapy is being studied and discussed. Five years ago I contacted Prof. Zemphira Alavidze, PhD, from the Phage Therapy Center and imported a coctel of bacteriophages to Argentina treat my father who had a nosocomial infection caused by pseudomonas aeuroginosa. I had to resort to what is called compassionate use medication policy, a relative who is a physician (as my father’s physician would not sign the order) and a dear diplomat friend who helped with delivery.

I’ve been passionate about this topic, sharing my experience with everyone and following the news. The biggest hurdle in my view is that you can’t patent a virus, which limits the incentives for pharmaceutical companies. This should be state policy.

MIT has been working to genetically modify viruses, but as the guest said, there has been a lot of bias in the way the medical community approached this old, well known and proved therapy. The Georgians have libraries of phages, the world is waiting for more collaboration and generosity among scientific communities. Thank you!

Has this been used to fight C-Diff.?

* Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^