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 treat numerous infectious diseases, including staphylococcus aureus (SA) or golden staph, and typhoid fever.
The South Australian scientists have been working with international company AmpliPhi Biosciences to research phage-based treatments and began human trials at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital earlier this year.
Flinders researcher Dr Peter Speck, from the School of Biological Sciences, 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 to 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 such as golden staph.
“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.
“At the moment we are trialling phage-therapy on sinus infections, but if you look back in the literature you see that in the 1940s they were very effectively used.
“Bacteriophage is highly species specific so a phage directed against golden staph would only kill golden staph.”
Dr Speck said the use of bacteriophages to treat infectious diseases was an old method that was discontinued after the rise of antibiotics in the 1950s.
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.”
Dr Speck said he hoped the trial results would demand more attention from governments.
The research was based on Dr Speck’s article Safety and efficacy of phage therapy via the intravenous route that has been published in the Oxford Journals Federation of European Microbiological Society Microbiology Letters.
The over-prescription and inappropriate administration of antibiotics is causing a rapid expansion in the numbers of resistant bacteria, with the seriousness of the problem evident in reports of a 30-day death rate of up to 30% in patients following blood-borne infections with golden staph, which increasingly is resistant to virtually all antibiotics.
The use of phages is widely considered possible for topical or localised use in wounds, burns, diabetic foot infections, or bowel and sinus bacterial infections.