Bacteriophages

This morning I was listening to the April 4 episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday (as a podcast on my iPod of course), where one topic discussed was “Using ‘Phage’ Viruses to Help Fight Infection.”

Most of us are probably at least somewhat familiar with the issues of “superbugs,” those bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. I’ve become a bit more interested in the issues concerning these bacteria since my dad had his left leg amputated just above the knee back in June 2005, though in his case it was a combination of diabetes, which he didn’t know he had, and delay in treatment that made it as severe as it was. However, we found out when he broke his hip this past December that he’s now considered a MRSA carrier (an interesting development, since we were under the impression that they thought his infection was caused by a strep bacteria, not a staph one), requiring a private room both at the hospital and transitional care. And requiring, one would think though no one has ever told us so, a bit more care for those of us who have close contact with him if we have cuts or scratches or things of that nature.

I sort of remember learning about bacteriophages in Biology classes, but had completely forgotten about them until listening to this podcast this morning. They’ve been with us all along, but bacteriophages were officially discovered and named in 1917 by Félix d’Hérelle, and work began shortly after to use these to fight infection. They were largely thrown over, however, when antibiotics began to be developed. According to one of those interviewed on the podcast, there were problems figuring out how to utilize bacteriophages properly back in the early days. But work did continue in some places, such as Georgia (the country). Phage therapy is being looked at again in the West to see if it can help with antibiotic-resistant bacterias and in other applications.

The thing that fascinated me is the idea of going back to something that’s already hanging out in the environment and using it to do what it does naturally. I’ll definitely be doing a little more reading about this, probably starting with the book written by one of interviewees I heard this morning, Viruses vs. Superbugs: A Solution to the Antibiotics Crisis? by Thomas Häusler.

If this topic interests you at all, I highly recommend giving the interview a listen. It’s nearly a half-hour long, but it’s a half-hour that I found well worth it.

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