Bacteriophages, known as phages for short, are viruses that infect and kill bacteria.
Phages are highly specific, meaning each phage targets a specific strain of bacteria. This characteristic has been exploited for over 100 years, with phage therapy used to treat bacterial infections.
However, the discovery and production of penicillin and subsequent antibiotics in the 1940s revolutionised infection treatment, and phage therapy fell out of fashion in much of the world.
In the years following, the global overuse and misuse of antibiotics has been a major driver of antibiotic resistance. Bacteria have evolved to resist treatment by antibiotics, rendering the drugs ineffective, and infections increasingly harder to treat.
In 2019, antibiotic resistance caused over 1.2 million deaths. This growing threat has led to renewed interest in phage treatment, which may be able to succeed in treating multidrug-resistant infections where antibiotics cannot.
Phages are the most abundant type of virus found in the world, which is an important part of their appeal. Scientists are looking for phages that target and kill drug-resistant bacteria, and recent technological advances in sequencing have revolutionised the field of phage characterisation, helping researchers to make new advances in phage therapy.
IOI researchers like Claudia Orbegozo Rubio are among those exploring the use of phages to combat antibiotic resistance. Originally trained in microbiology in Spain, Claudia worked in a hospital diagnosing bacterial infections from patients. After moving to the UK and working on viruses such as hepatitis B, Claudia has integrated her research skills to work where viruses meet bacteria: phages.
Claudia is working to find new phages that target drug-resistant bacterial infections. She explains:
We need to look for phages in places where there are drug-resistant bacteria – these viruses are natural predators of bacteria, so they are found together. This means places like hospital sewage are a goldmine of phages against drug-resistant bacteria. When we have identified and characterised these phages, then we can begin to develop their usefulness as a drug. Phages may just hold the key to combatting antibiotic resistance.