How viruses can help combat antibiotic resistance

Image: Illustration of a bacterium injecting its DNA into a bacterial cell.

Due to frequent and incorrect use of antibiotics, more and more bacteria are becoming resistant to them. The problem is already so serious that the World Health Organization considers antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to health worldwide.

Researchers and doctors from the Queen Astrid Military Hospital and researchers from the Gene Technology Laboratory at KU Leuven have joined forces to find a solution. They began searching for a new way to treat bacterial infections.

Virus factories

They have developed personalized phage therapy, a treatment that uses phages – small viruses that specifically attack bacteria. “Bacteriophages inject their own DNA into the bacterial cell, turning it into virus production factories,” says Professor Rob Lavin from the University of Leuven. “Then the bacterial cells explode and new phages are released, which in turn begin searching for the next cell.”

The researchers treated about 100 patients with their treatment for the first time. Because phages are highly selective and leave the good bacteria in the body alone, it was important to match the right phages to the right patient so that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be attacked very precisely. In addition, each phage preparation was thoroughly tested before being administered, so that the procedure was also safe for patients.

After treatment, treating physicians saw clinical progression in 77 percent of patients and complete clearance of pathogenic bacteria in up to 61 percent of infections. “This is exceptional because this treatment was offered as a ‘last resort’ for very chronically ill patients,” says Professor Lavin.

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The best results were achieved when phage therapy was combined with antibiotics. Researchers now want to see how they can roll out the treatment safely, efficiently and affordably.

Megan Vasquez

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