The Bacteriophage Comes of Age

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


March 08, 2012

In This Article

The Bacteriophage: Too Good to Be True?

What if we had an agent that could kill bacteria without contributing to the development of antimicrobial resistance? What if this agent were also low cost, easy to develop, and harmless to patients?

Would you believe that such an agent has been known to medical science since the early 20th century? It's called a bacteriophage, essentially a virus that kills bacteria. A bacteriophage (or "phage") attaches itself to a specific bacterial host cell and destroys it by internal replication and bacterial lysis. Bacteriophages are not antibiotics -- but that is the beauty of these viruses. Because they aren't chemical antibiotics, their use can avoid most of the disadvantages of the infection-fighting drugs we have available today.

Discovery and Rediscovery

Predating the discovery of antibiotics, the existence of bacteriophages was suspected in 1896, when antimicrobial activity against Vibrio cholerae was observed in the waters of the Ganges and Jumna rivers in India.[1] In the early 20th century, scientists around the world were isolating and studying these "agents of transmissible bacterial lysis"[2] for their ability to eradicate undesirable bacteria -- not only in humans, but in animals and plants, as well.[3]

According to bacteriophage scientist Dr. Alexander Sulakvelidze, "during the early 20th century, the remarkable antibacterial activity of bacteriophages prompted some physicians and veterinarians to use lytic phages to treat various bacterial diseases of humans and domesticated livestock, respectively, but their use gradually declined in the West after antibiotics became widely available." Thus, instead of becoming the long-awaited key weapon in the fight against infectious diseases, bacteriophage research gave way to the new miracle of modern medicine -- antibiotics. However, phage research never stopped in some parts of the world, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.[4]

Resurrected interest in bacteriophages was concurrent with an emerging global crisis of drug-resistant pathogens and a corresponding decline in the development of effective new antibiotics. Fear of returning to the preantibiotic era has spurred a renewal of research efforts to bring bacteriophage technology to the current infectious disease crisis.


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