ASH Honors Blog: Bacteriophage Therapy

Bacteriophage Therapy


Antibiotic resistance is the phenomenon in which bacteria grow resistant to the drugs designed to kill them. When an individual becomes infected with an antibiotic resistant pathogen, it is impossible to treat and requires prolonged hospital stays. In addition, resistant pathogens threaten the future of medicine. Without antibiotics to cure bacterial infections, the risk of infection for necessary procedures like joint replacements, cancer therapy, and organ transplants are too high. So why not create new antibiotics for these resistant pathogens? 

Antibiotics are extremely expensive and take years to create. The last class of antibiotics was released in 1987 and it took at least 10 years for them to be tested for safety and effectiveness before reaching the market. Dr. Steffine Strathdee, author of The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save her Husband from a Deadly Superbug, explains why this is such a problem: “At the rate that scientists now know that bacteria develop resistance, researchers would need to create about thirty-five new classes of antibiotics each century to stay ahead of bacterial pathogens” (103). It is also estimated to cost 1.5 billion dollars to produce antibiotics, but the revenue stream falls far short of the cost of production.  Of course, bacteria will develop defense mechanisms to every antibiotic we create, so creating more antibiotics does not solve the problem. 

One solution to this growing health threat is bacteriophage therapy, or phage therapy, which uses viruses whose innate instinct is to kill bacteria. Phages naturally occur in every place you can find bacteria. Bacteriophage therapy would solve the problem of antibiotic resistance because there are specific phages for each bacteria isolate. Thus, a cocktail can be personalized to the exact infection which cuts out time for the other bacteria to develop defense mechanisms to the treatment. Strathdee explains in her book that phage cocktails have been created for emergency situations, so we have the ability to fabricate them even faster than antibiotics. 

Bacteriophage therapy has yet to go through clinical trials or be approved by the FDA. The cost structure has also not been established, and it will have to compete against the billion dollar enterprise of Big Pharma. It is imperative that a phage farm be established to decrease the amount of time it takes to find the perfect phage for the infections. Although bacteriophage therapy has to overcome many hurdles, it will in the end be more beneficial to humanity when we have a drug that is able to eradicate infections without creating a superbug in the process.