Virus therapy to attack superbugs

Viruses specifically designed to battle superbugs are being trialled in a South Australian hospital

Flinders University scientists are looking to bacteriophages — highly specific viruses — as the as the best way to attack antibiotic-resistant bacterial superbug infections. The already proven phage-based therapies could help to treat numerous infectious diseases, including Staphylococcus aureus (SA) and typhoid fever.

The South Australian scientists have been working with AmpliPhi Biosciences to research phage-based treatments and began human trials at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital earlier this year. Flinders University researcher Peter Speck said the need to find an alternative to antibiotics was of vital importance, forcing scientists to revisit solutions to infectious diseases that pre-dated antibiotics.

‘There is now a problem with antibiotics becoming less and less effective in treating bacteria and infections,’ Dr Speck said: ‘In view of the looming crisis of antimicrobial resistant bacteria, all possibilities for the use of phage therapy must be contemplated.’

Superbugs are strains of bacteria that have developed immunity to antibiotics and account for about 700,000 deaths a year worldwide. World health authorities are forecasting that antibiotic resistance will cause more deaths per year than cancer by 2050, with one estimate at 10 million by 2050 compared with eight million for cancer.

Dr Speck said bacteriophages or phages were viruses that attacked bacterial cells and disrupted bacterial metabolism. He said that phage-therapy could be applied intravenously and attack bacterial infections. ‘We have been working on this for some years and I think it is the most advanced clinical trial of bacteriophage in the world today,’ Dr Speck said.

Phage-therapy trials are under way at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Dr Speck said he hoped to expand the research and look at other infectious diseases. ‘Another big potential area where phages could be used is in infections where bacteria in the blood are a threat, so intravenous phage use could deliver a benefit,’ he said.

‘The potential objections to the IV use of phages must be viewed in the context of the high mortality associated with certain severe infectious diseases such as typhoid and SA bacteraemia, both of which are reportedly treatable though IV phage therapy,’ he concluded.