In the News

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.

When Thomas Patterson woke up from a two-month coma in March 2016, he learned two things he couldn’t believe: Donald Trump was soon to become the Republican nominee for president, and his wife, Steffanie Strathdee, had saved him from dying of an antibiotic-resistant superbug by injecting him with viruses harvested from sewage.

Scientists have long dismissed “phage therapy” as a fringe idea pushed by eccentrics who enjoy fishing in sewage. But now the Navy is betting on it. Two days after walking through the pyramids, Tom Patterson got very sick. The psychiatry professor was in Egypt with his wife on one of their many adventurous vacations away from life in California. One minute he was fine, hamming it up in a touristy horse-and-buggy ride across the desert. The next, he couldn’t stop sweating and vomiting.