It involves the use of viruses that kill bacteria.
Hospitals are scary, and the longer you remain in them, the greater your risk. Among these risks, hospital-acquired infections are probably the biggest. Each year in Australia, that prolong their hospital stays, increase costs, and sadly, increase the risk of death.
It sounds absurd — hospitals are supposed to be the cleanest of places. But bacteria are everywhere and can adapt to the harshest of environments. In hospitals, our increased use of disinfectants and antibiotics has forced these bacteria to evolve to survive. These survivors are called “superbugs”, with an arsenal of tools to resist antibiotics. Superbugs prey on the most vulnerable patients, such as those in intensive care units.
It causes devastating infections in the lungs, urinary tract, wounds, and bloodstream.
Treatment is difficult because A. baumannii can produce enzymes that destroy entire families of antibiotics. Other antibiotics never make it past their outer layer or . This outer layer — thick, sticky, viscous, and made of sugars — also protects the superbug from the body’s immune system. In some cases, not even the strongest — and most toxic — antibiotics can kill A. baumannii. As a result, the World Health Organisation for the discovery of new treatments.
A (somewhat) New Solution
It’s said that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Do bacteria have enemies?
Bacteriophages (or phages, for short) are the natural predators of bacteria. Their name literally means “bacteria eater”. You can find phages wherever you can find bacteria.
Phages are viruses. But don’t let that scare you. Unlike famous viruses — such as HIV, smallpox, or SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID — phages cannot harm humans. They only infect and kill bacteria. In fact, phages are quite picky. A single phage normally infects only one type of bacteria.
Since their discovery in the early 1900s, doctors thought of an obvious use for phages: treating bacterial infections. But this practice, known as phage therapy, was largely dismissed after the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s.
Now, with the alarming rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and a lack of new antibiotics, . In Australia, for example, a team lead by Professor Jon Iredell at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital reported in February the safe use of suffering from infections by another superbug, Staphylococcus aureus.
We began our study by “hunting” for phages against A. baumannii. From wastewater samples sourced from all over Australia, we successfully isolated a range of phages capable of killing the superbug. That was the easy part.
When mixing our phages with A. baumannii in the laboratory, they were able to wipe out almost the entire bacterial population. But “almost” was not good enough. Within a few hours, the superbug showed how wickedly smart it is. It had found a way to become resistant to the phages and was happily growing in their presence.
We decided to take a closer look at this phage-resistant A. baumannii. Understanding how it outsmarted the phages might help us choose our next attack.
We discovered that phage-resistant A. baumannii was missing its outer layer. The genes responsible for producing the capsule had mutated. Under the microscope, the superbug looked naked, with no sign of its characteristic thick, sticky, and viscous surface.
To kill their bacterial prey, phages first need to attach to it. They do this by recognizing a receptor . Think of it as a lock-and-key mechanism. Each phage has a unique key, that will only open the specific lock displayed by certain bacteria.
Our phages needed A. baumannii‘s capsule for attachment. It was their prospective port of entry into the superbug. When attacked by our phages, A. baumannii escaped by letting go of its capsule. As expected, this helped us decide our next attack: antibiotics.
We tested the action of nine different antibiotics on the phage-resistant A. baumannii. Without the protective capsule, the superbug completely lost its resistance to three antibiotics, reducing the dosage needed to kill the superbug. Phages had pushed the superbug into a corner.
We established a way to revert antibiotic-resistance in one of the most dangerous superbugs.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)