Science Saturdays: Weaponizing Viruses, A Novel Approach to the Superbug Crisis

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science / Skarface

In a landscape of constant change, scientists are pressed to discover novel ways of treating diseases once receptive to old solutions. This is very much the case for the current super bug crisis. 

Superbug mania is still flying relatively under the radar. Most of the coverage given to this topic stays restricted to the various science news niches that exist on news platforms. Front page topics are reserved for bulbous orange-skinned politicians and civic unrest. 

This subject matter is often important to keep the public informed, yes, but denying the layman information on what is happening across the world of antibiotics right now is ignoring the urgency of the matter.

Bill Gates and the UK are pouring millions of dollars into the study of alternative treatments for harmful bacteria. The reason is simple: in the war between drugs and bugs, the bugs are gaining traction.

In most hospitals, bacteria like MRSA and other forms of super resistant germs leave patients, already vulnerable from weakened immune systems, at large risk for infection. What once needed no more than a few runs of antibiotic to cure now risks death in sufferers. Hundreds of thousands of people succumb to these infections annually. Many more will soon follow.

From 2013 to 2017 alone, the occurrence of drug-resistant bloodstream infections rocketed by 35 percent in the UK. A staggering statistic on its own, the spike is cause for more alarm when paired with the 7 percent drop in human antibiotic use and the 40 percent drop in livestock within the same time frame. 

Even as the West curbs its drug administration, much of the world allows for the consumption of antibiotic medications to go unchecked. Without regulations and proper usage being as imperative as it should be, carelessness and over-saturation gives strains of bacteria opportunities to adapt ever more.

How can bacteria become so rapidly resistant to drugs discovered only a century before? An insane rate of evolution is to blame. 

At minute scale, evolution is rapid and transformative. Enhancements that may take multicellular organisms several millennia to develop only requires decades or less in the simplest life forms. Bacteria undergo reproduction far more rapidly and thus accumulate more life-altering mutations in the process. The rate of reproducing is exponential, thus the statistics skew towards rapid adaptation for these single-celled creatures.

Bacteria are formidable foes for humankind. With advantages we cannot hope to best without creativity, the battle of man vs microbe requires one rife with strategy. 

New research proposes solutions that may seem more suitable for science fiction. Weaponizing viruses? Sounds a lot like the plot of “I am Legend”.

Unfortunately, this is the reality.

Old fashioned methods no longer fit the bill, requiring novel approaches to the problem. The UK in particular is bolstering incentives for drug companies to get creative and the results of that are showing. 

A particular approach is one I hold dear to my heart; one that I hope to advocate for in this article and future ones.

Enter: Bacteriophages.

Already known for their antimicrobial properties, bacteriophages may hold the key to turning the tides of this biological war. Identified a century before, bacteriophagesphages for short– are viruses that target and infect bacteria. Thanks to the abundance of prey, phages are the most common biological form in the world. Trillions upon trillions of them exist.

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The common structure of a bacteriophage. Aka: Earth’s funky microscopic alien

Every form of phage evolved to attack a specific bacterium. Highly specialized, these viruses  kill only the organisms they adapted to hunt. They are harmless to complex life but deadly to microbes. 

Phages also possess the ability to evolve. Adaptations made by their prey can thus be accounted for by the virus’ own ability to adapt as well. Phages also prioritize microbes’ defenses which leave them weakened and more susceptible to treatment with antibiotics that did not work previously. 

Using phages in tandem with antibiotics could clean a person’s system from bacteria that would have otherwise been unresponsive to treatment. 

The realm of possibilities that exists in phage research is vast and mostly unexplored. Although discovered before penicillin, the study of phages was shelved after the easy to use and far more efficient antibiotics hit the scene. Now that the reliability of these drugs is wavering, the book of phage waits to be reopened. All that lacks now are the funds needed to quicken the pace of discovery.

Money is finding this branch of research, but not enough. Only a third of The National Institute of Health’s $473 million budget given to medical research was designated for phage therapy. This number needs to improve. Fortunately, the proof phage therapy works already exists.

Using phages is commonplace in Russia and the small country of Georgia. Soviet era science kept up with the study of phages as medicine and have advanced medicines based on their properties. People can purchase phage cocktails in hopes of curing their infections and often do.

More countries are beginning to tune in to the properties of the phage, with a new focus given to understanding their characteristics and the characteristics of their enzymes

I was lucky enough to work in a lab where this research was ongoing. The advisor to our projects, Dr. George Smith, was awarded with the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his innovations in the field. He put it best when he said that this science is not new, it simply has yet to be documented. Every patch of soil contains novel phages with properties we do not yet understand.

The superbug crisis has the chance of killing more than 10 million people annually by 2050 if left in its current state. Phages may be humanity’s golden egg to stopping that ball from gaining momentum. 

All it takes is some enthusiasm and funding. Awareness to the goings-on of this crisis must also be put in the forefront of people’s minds. No longer should articles touching on this subject be reserved for the science and biology tabs of media outlets. They are as pressing a topic as Trump’s latest endeavors.

If not more so.

Bisous.

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