Would you ever think of making medicine from swamp water? Or sewage? With some traditional medicines becoming ineffective, scientists are getting down and dirty as they seek new ways to fight disease. Their search is taking them to some unexpected places—and pitting germs against germs.
Bacteria and viruses are types of germs. Both can cause disease. And both are usually things to avoid. But God engineered viruses and bacteria to act and interact in amazing ways. So sometimes a virus can fight a bacterium . . . and win.
A century ago, scientists discovered viruses called bacteriophages (“phages” for short). Doctors used them against certain infections and diseases. The idea was to pit one germ (a phage) against another (a bacterium). Then antibiotics came along. They were easier to use, so many doctors stopped using phages.
Now after years of exposure to medicine, some germs have changed. Many can now resist antibiotics. Therefore, some scientists have begun using phages again.
Phages work differently from antibiotics. Like a parasite, the virus gets inside the bacterial cells. It copies itself and kills the cells as the copies pop out. The copied phages search for more bacteria and repeat the process until the infection is gone. Each phage recognizes only certain bacteria, so it shouldn’t kill off “good bugs” in the digestive tract like antibiotics do.
Biologist Benjamin Chan collects phages. He looks in ditches, ponds, and even sewage treatment plants for phages that could attack a variety of human bacterial infections.
“The best places are often really dirty,” he says.
Chan gave 26-year-old Ella Balasa phage treatment for cystic fibrosis. Her disease scars her lungs and traps bacteria inside. Until last fall, a daily dose of inhaled antibiotics kept her infection in check. Then the drugs quit working.
Chan gave Balasa a phage made from brownish sewage goo to inhale.
“I’m really running out of options,” Balasa says about the last-resort treatment.
It’s true that bacteria can change to escape phages just like they escape antibiotics. But biologist Paul Turner says they usually lose some of their antibiotic resistance by doing so. That means medicines could start working again. What a gracious provision from God!
Balasa inhaled billions of phages over seven days. Almost immediately, her saliva contained fewer bacteria. In a few weeks, she began feeling better. Now her doctor has taken her off antibiotics—which Balasa calls “a very big success.” Still, she knows “the true test is how long I can go without using any antibiotics again.”