Jan 25, 2007 6:38 pm US/Pacific
Phage Therapy May Help Fight Resistant Bacteria
In the crumbling, former Soviet state of Georgia, stripped of nearly everything of value, is a newly re-discovered medical technology of unlimited potential.
The technology involves the use of bacteriophages...phages, for short... a virus that attacks and kills specific bacterium.
David Hodges of Phage International in Los Altos says the virus therapy is essentially 100 percent effective at stopping infections caused by new antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
"Hospital staph infections, skin infections, it's acquired in the community as much as it's acquired in the hospitals," said Hodges. "It's a very prevalent and difficult to kill bacteria strain."
Phage International teamed with doctors at a clinic in the former Soviet state to treat patients from the United States, because the therapy is not approved by the FDA. The clinic is one of the few places in the world that continued to practice phage therapy after the discovery of antibiotics.
Here's how it works. The phage virus attaches to the surface of the bacteria cell. It injects its DNA into the cell itself. The virus is alive, and this is how it reproduces. Within a just few minutes, the DNA becomes a phage factory, hijacking the bacteria's own reproductive mechanism and turning out new copies of the virus, until they explode through the cell wall, killing the bacteria and releasing phages that rampage in search of other identical cells, and only those cells, until all the bacteria are gone.
Although phages are everywhere in nature, the therapy requires constant monitoring by doctors and microbiologists to insure the bacteria are properly paired with their matching specific phages.
The virus could also be used to combat e-coli contamination of leafy vegetables.
"That is a real challenge," said Hodges, "because the second you say virus and we're going to put it on your food, of course the red flag goes up."
FDA approval could take several years.
Meantime, the once-abandoned Soviet therapy is getting new attention in the West.
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