Just a mere 150 years ago, a small cut could easily seal your fate. Just a small cut, enough to form what was one of the greatest killers in human history. Infection! An infection can be a multitude of things, being a broad term to cover many different ailments all deriving from a bacteria breeding and living inside your flesh. Potentially leading to life threatening septicaemia – poisoning of the blood – this leads to bacteria entering the heart, brain and other vital organs. Potentially leading to complete shutdown of vital systems. However, we have the greatest discovery of the 20th century to thank! ANTIBIOTICS!
Discovered by near accident in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Flemming. When he noticed a small culture of Staphylococci had been left open, now contaminated with a blue-green mould. Upon closer inspection Flemming noticed that the bacterial growth had been inhibited or completely stopped by the presence of this fungus. Known as Penicillium. This would lead to the eventual creation of the worlds first true antibiotic. Penicillin. (1)
However, this was not a discovery without issue. Flemming himself, and other scientists knew that bacteria would develop resistance to these antibiotics through horizontal gene transfer and evolution through the selection pressure we were now applying. However, this warning was not heeded. In the decades since antibiotics have been overused, and abused by the medical industry, households, and most of all, the food industry. With saturation of antibiotics into animal feed we have advanced the rate at which bacteria are exposed to these antibiotics, increasing the speed at which they can develop resistance. (2)
Now then, how can we stop, prevent or mitigate these effects? well the answer is simple and may sound like your nutty aunt. WE USE NATURE! There are organisms called BACTERIOPHAGE which are a type of virus that targets and use bacteria to reproduce. How they do this is through injecting their own genetic material into the bacteria. This then integrates its self into the hosts DNA forcing it to produce more of the Bacteriophage. This stops the bacteria from reproducing. In the same token, it further produces more of the Bacteria fighting Phage.
But, I hear you ask “aren’t viruses potentially dangerous to us too?” technically yes. BUT, in this case it is a Bacteriophage and these types of viruses target a specific strain of bacteria. This is of no danger to the human body and tests are already being done on human subjects as to its potential use and effects. However this poses other issues, with the high specificity of Bacteriophages a specific treatment will have to be developed for each individual off of a cocktail of different phages.
Bacteriophage were first reported in 1915 by Frederick Twort and in 1917 by Felix d’Hérelle. Both noticing when the phage was present in in stool samples of patients sick with dysentery they would soon begin to recover. This was an imediate recognition in the medical field as a new way forward for eliminating bacterialpathogens. However, the equipment necessary to isolate, locate and purify specific Phages had not yet been developed. Since 1923 the Eliava institute in Tbilisi, Georgia has carried on this research and is the first noted institute to use Phage therapy as a legitimate medicine and viable treatment option. (3)
However, currently a major issue with Phage therapy is that it has not yet been legislated as safe in western hospitals. With the exception of “experimental” or “supplemental use” in some US states. However change is on the horizon, and it has to be with the rising cases of “super bugs” in hospitals across the world. In 2013 there was the 20th biennial evergreen international phage meeting. Showing promise for international cooperation in this new field of medical science.
Phage therapy is a proven form of treatment for terminal bacterial diseases. As in the Russian federation they report a 50% efficacy of their treatment. Meaning out of every 100 patients with a terminal illness 50 are healed and survive the condition that would normally kill them. Although this is not a desirable percentage. It must be remembered that this treatment is still in its infancy and it is at times very difficult to determine the cause of the infection to create a valid treatment.(4)
Now, the question lies in the hand of the next generation of scientists and the public. As more research needs to be done in the field. While public knowledge and opinion needs to change on the topic. This is potentially the medical discovery of the century. However, when you are at the cutting edge of science, it is very easy to slip.
Figure 1:Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 7, No. 20.
1 Haven, Kendall F. (1994). Marvels of Science : 50 Fascinating 5-Minute Reads. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited
2 Bud, Robert (2009). Penicillin: Triumph and Tragedy. Oxford University Press.
3 Twort, F. W. (1915). “An investigation on the nature of ultra-microscopic viruses”
4 В.Н.Крылов (5 April 2007) (translated)