From Russia with gloves

Ex-Soviet Union viruses could fill antibiotic gap.

Russian remedies could take out hardy US bacteria. Long-abandoned by Western medicine, viruses that naturally kill microbes are being imported as a potential substitute for antibiotics.

The emergence of multi-drug-resistant bacteria is intensifying the search for antibiotic replacements. Bemoaning the problem, clinician Glenn Morris of the University of Maryland in College Park got an idea from a colleague from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Morris explains: “He said, ’why don’t you use ’phage therapy?’; I said, ’what’s ’phage therapy?’.”

’Phages – more properly, bacteriophages – are viruses that are harmless to humans but kill bacteria. They were widely researched as a means to tackle disease until the 1940s. When potent antibiotics appeared on the scene, the West discarded them.

Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union pursued ’phage therapy, so ’phage creams, pills and plasters are commonly available there. Now Morris and his colleagues are carrying out basic tests to update the treatments for US product licenses.

Worktops contaminated with the foodborne bacteria Listeria are clean within 24 hours of ’phage treatment, he told the Experimental Biology 2002 meeting in New Orleans on Sunday. Salmonella and Escherichia coli are similarly wiped out. ’Phages could be used in food production or packaging, Morris suggests.

Unlike antibiotics, ’phages kill only a specific bacterial type, leaving other, beneficial bugs intact. For example, antibiotic resistant strains of the gut bacteria Enterococcus, which can cause dangerous infections after surgery or in chemotherapy patients, are also being tackled.

We are naturally surrounded by ’phages. The type that Morris is using attack and multiply inside bacteria then split them apart to escape. The ’phages keep killing until their victims run out, and then quietly die.

Cold science

Part of the reason that the West dropped ’phages was that bacteria might evade them, says Richard Young, who studies pathogenic microbes at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A single change in the bacterial receptor to which they bind could render it resistant to the virus: “It was viewed as its Achilles heel,” he says.

A mixture of 30-40 different ’phages all aimed at the same bug should get around this problem. “A cocktail is important,” agrees Heidi Kaplan, who studies antibiotic-resistant bacteria at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston.

“US science tends to have a prejudice against Soviet science,” adds Morris, who now collaborates with the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology in Tbilisi, Georgia. But Morris is not alone in trying to bring down the scientific cold wall – two small biotech companies besides his are also on the case.

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HELEN PEARSON © Nature News Service

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