From the annual meeting in Edinburgh this week of the Society for General Microbiology comes an intriguing report of a new use for a very old antimicrobial tool.
The old tool is phages, viruses that infect bacteria and that were used as treatments for bacterial diseases in the pre-antibiotic era. (Does anyone going into medicine read Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith any more? The heroic doctor protagonist of that novel uses phages against diphtheria.) Following the development of penicillin, phage work was abandoned in the West but remained an active area of research in the former Soviet Union. (See this Slate.com story for details; this webpage looks like a good phage resource, though I can't figure out who the authors are.)
To be hopelessly reductionist, the upside of phages is that they are less likely to provoke resistance and have few side-effects; the downside is that they have to be precisely tuned to the bacteria they are used against. There is no such thing as "empiric therapy" with phages.
Comes now a team from the University of Strathclyde to say they have found what may be a promising new use for phages: chemically bonding them to polymers that can then be used in sutures and wound dressings to prevent infections in surgical sites and implanted catheters and devices.
The abstract (first author Janice Spencer) is not online, but the BBC has posted a short story based on the press release.
UPDATE: My colleague Nick Kelley at CIDRAP, a phage phanatic (sorry), says this is the best phage page he knows of. The index page has a gorgeous electronmicrograph of a phage inserting its stuff into a bacterium.
One of the phage companies (Biophage Pharma) was invited to present at SMi’s 10th Annual conference entitled “Superbugs & Superdrugs; a focus on antibacterials” (London, England, April 9 and 10, 2008).
More info can be found
Two good sites for phage therapy info are:
http://www.bacteriophagetherapy.info - author of the book Viruses vs. Superbugs; and
http://www.phagetherapycenter.com in Georgia - actually treats patients.
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