Not pills but virus will save lives

Mallory Smith, a 25-year-old American woman, was heading for doom at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center on 7 November, 2017. Her lung infection was otherwise just manageable with regular antibiotics. Nothing, however, in the hospital chest worked. A host of deadly drug resistant bacteria was coursing through her system. There was no known medication to it.

Days later she breathed her last. Like hundreds of other patients whose cases are mostly written off as ‘deaths from other complications’. Something must be done pronto. Because, an increasing number of people around the world are falling prey to this latest heath-threat: drug resistance.

People die from what must have been previously silly infections. Bacteria, after being exposed overly to antibiotics, have become stronger. Even the strongest antibiotics in our armoury are unable to save lives. At least 2 million people get infected with drug resisting bacteria in the US, and an estimated 23,000 people die each year.

The numbers are growing like wildfire, spinning out of control. With no effective antibiotics around, it would be impossible to conduct major surgeries, recommend organ transplantation, and treat cancer. One report says that common E.coli bacteria resist drugs in some countries. As a result, treating conditions like urinary tract infections are becoming unmanageable. We are heading for a sort of medical cul-de-sac.

Let’s talk about Mallory Smith’ story, appeared in TIME magazine last week. When she was battling for life, when all drugs failed, a glimmer of hope emerged in the form of bacteriophage, bacteria- eating virus which is abundant in nature. Stefanie Strathdee, the associate dean of global health science at the University of California, San Diego saw to it that the virus was used. Mallory Smith received virus shot belatedly, and died two days later. In 2015, Strathdee resorted to bacteriophage or phage to save her husband Tom Patternson, whose condition became worse having been infected with drug-resistant bacteria. She is grateful to phage like many out there, giving hope to a new kind of life-saving treatment. But it is nothing new; this century old medical procedure, neglected after antibiotics conquered market, is a potent alternative to antibiotics. Bacteriophage is a virus which usually infects and kills bacteria. As the Greek word phage, meaning ‘to devour’, suggests, they eat away bacteria.

With trillions of them living on the planet, especially in sea water, intestines of animals, sewages and wherever bacteria live, they outnumber all other organisms including bacteria. For over 90 years, they have been an alternative to antibiotics in Central Europe, France and former Soviet Union.

It all began in 1896 when Earnest Hanbury Hankin, British bacteriologist, found antibacterial action against cholera in the waters of Ganges and Yamuna. Later British bacteriologist Frederick Twort discovered this bacteria killer virus. Some argue that French microbiologist Félix d'Hérelle was the first to discover it.

The discovery galvanised medical science. And sequencing its genetic structure earned Max Delbrück, Alfred Hershey and Salvador Luria Nobel Prize in 1969. In 1920s and 1930s, phages were used in treatment in US and Europe. However, the advent of antibiotics scuttled the research in the area, eventually, phage treatment fell out of vogue.  Now helpless, modern science is returning to this forgotten treatment.