In the News

The low point for Patti Swearingen came one morning last December. She woke up, picked up her iPhone and was too dizzy to be able to tell the time. For more than five years, Swearingen, 60, of Rowlett, had been on and off antibiotics, battling an infection that kept coming back. At first, it was the bacteria that made her ill. Now it was the drugs themselves she couldn’t tolerate. They made her vomit, gave her migraines, sapped her energy and caused vertigo. Worst of all, her symptoms kept her from doing the things she cherished: making breakfast for her husband, checking on her 86-year-old mother, making plans to visit her grandchildren.

Advances in DNA sequencing and AI could make the idea a more practical treatment option. Patients in danger of dying from uncontrollable bacterial infections could find new allies: killer viruses known as phages. Armed with advances in DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence, a few startups are turning these natural enemies of bacteria into promising alternatives to antibiotics.

In 2018, two small biotech companies in the U.S.–AmpliPhi Biosciences and Adaptive Phage Therapeutics (APT)–will launch clinical trials that will attempt to answer some of the key questions about phage. “In the future, if we can cut the time down, phage might be better than antibiotics,” says APT founder Dr. Carl Merril.

On the evening of Nov. 7, Steffanie Strathdee sent out a cryptic tweet: “#Phage researchers! I am working with a team to get Burkholderia cepacia phages to treat a 25 y old woman with CF whose infection has failed all #antibiotics. We need lytic non-lysogenic phage URGENTLY to find suitable phage matches. Email if you can help!” The message was retweeted nearly 400 times.

Humans and bacteria have been clashing for as long as both have inhabited the Earth, and for decades now, humans have had the upper hand. Starting with penicillin in 1942, antibiotics have brought previously untreatable maladies like tuberculosis under control and made surgery far safer.

The researcher couldn’t get Mallory Smith’s story out of her mind. Smith was a 25-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, and she was near death at a Pittsburgh hospital, her lungs overwhelmed by bacteria. All antibiotics had failed. As a last resort, her father suggested an experimental treatment known as phage therapy.

The era of antibiotics that began almost a century ago is coming to an end. Diseases that were once easily treatable have become resistant to even the most potent antibiotics. Around the globe, drug-resistant infections claim hundreds of thousands of lives a year; according to one report, the toll of infectious disease deaths could rise to 10 million a year by 2050. England’s chief medical officer warns of an impending “post-antibiotic apocalypse.”

In 1915, British scientist Frederick Twort saw something weird happening to the bacteria that had invaded his viral cultures: They were disappearing, a sign they had been destroyed. Two years later, French-Canadian microbiologist Félix d’ Hérelle observed the same phenomenon in his own lab. Both researchers, working independently, concluded that the viruses they had been growing were killing the bacteria. It was an astonishing discovery, because no one had any idea that viruses had that kind of power.