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Microscope image of phages attaching bacteria

MPs back inquiry into powerful new weapon against antibiotic resistance

A University of Brighton researcher has gained Parliamentary support to investigate an ancient foe of bacteria as a weapon against antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is a global threat of huge proportions. A 2019 study published in the Lancet estimated that drug resistant infections contribute to 4.95 million deaths per year on average (12,000 of those in the UK) – with the global figure expected to rise to 10 million by 2050.

Profile shot of Professor James EbdonProfessor James Ebdon’s pitch on behalf of Applied Microbiology International (formerly the Society for Applied Microbiology) was one of six selected  from over 90 initial suggestions to the My Science Inquiry initiative set up by the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee to search for a topic that should receive immediate Parliamentary investigation.

Professor Ebdon pitched his proposal in person to the committee last month, urging the government to loosen restrictions on the use of biological entities known as bacteriophages (often shortened to phages) as a tool to treat a range of life-threatening diseases – ushering in what he calls ‘the Age of the Phage’. A formal inquiry and call for evidence into bacteriophage therapy will now be launched during UK Parliament Week, which begins on 14 November.

An ancient bacterial foe

Phages are among the most abundant biological entities on Earth, and have evolved over millennia to attack bacteria, keeping them in check in the natural world. One of the amazing things about phages is that they have evolved to be very choosy about which type of bacteria they latch onto and destroy,” explained Professor Ebdon, an expert in Environmental Microbiology at the University of Brighton.

“They do this by landing like a lunar landing module onto their chosen bacterial cell, injecting their genes into that cell, and turning it into a mini phage factory to produce more phages. These in turn burst out and move on to attack neighbouring bacterial cells.”

This form of cascading assault on bacteria offers a powerful new tool to treat a swathe of diseases that conventional drug treatments are proving increasingly ineffective against, as a result of growing antibiotic resistance worldwide.

“Unless we act now, common diseases will become untreatable and modern life-saving procedures riskier,” said Professor Ebdon. “The economic impact of uncontrolled antibiotic resistance will also result in a dramatic rise in health expenditures, further increasing levels of poverty and inequality.”

This ability of phages to target disease-causing bacteria was first observed over 100 years ago and harnessed initially in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, where they are still routinely used today to treat humans.

In the UK, phages are used in a variety of other applications. These include tracing groundwater contamination and identifying human sources of water pollution, and they have also been used to control pathogens in food. However, phages are only currently permitted for treating UK patients on compassionate grounds, in life-threatening situations when all other treatments have been exhausted.

“The UK has been slow to recognise the full potential of phage therapy,” said Professor Ebdon. “This is due largely to a lack of definitive guidelines and regulations, making pharmaceutical companies reluctant to fund the necessary clinical trials.” Professor Ebdon argues that current uncertainties – such as how best to administer phages, dosage and length of treatment – can certainly be overcome.

One stumbling block relates to how phages are actually classified. In the EU they are classed as ‘medicinal products’, while the US classes them as drugs. Current legislation, meanwhile, is geared towards regulating off-the-shelf, industrially-produced pharmaceuticals, rather than the tailor-made phage preparations. Perhaps now, however, we are on the verge of creating regulatory conditions favourable for the development of fresh lifesaving treatments for patients worldwide in a new Age of the Phage.

Stephanie Thomson • November 10, 2022


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