Look to the past to help fight superbugs

April 30, 2013

Lee TunstallCALGARY, AB, Apr. 30, 2013/ Troy Media/ – With the advent of new strains of ‘superbugs’ such as Clostridium difficile (C-Difficile) and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the age of wide-spectrum antibiotic effectiveness seems to be waning. The development of new antibiotics is a long and costly process. So what are we going to do to prevent falling back into a time where an infection was often fatal?

Sometimes, the science we have left behind needs to be revisited. One possibility that could be reconsidered is bacteriophage therapy. Although it was first discovered in the early 20th century, it was widely abandoned in the West after the discovery and introduction of antibiotics.

Bacteriophage, or more simply ‘phage’ therapy, is designed to use nature against itself, by introducing a targeted and customized virus into bacteria which then destroys the bacterial infection, leaving other more beneficial strains of bacteria untouched. There are millions of phages and they are pretty much ubiquitous in nature. True, phages are difficult to manage because they must be customized, and bacteria do become resistant to phages. However, it is far easier to develop new phages than new antibiotics, as new phages can be developed in as little as one week. Phage therapy was in common usage in the former Soviet Union and still is used, especially in the Republic of Georgia, to this day.

Felix d'Herelle
Felix d’Herelle

It was actually a self-taught French-Canadian scientist, Felix d’Herelle, who was the co-discoverer of bacteriophages and first used phage therapy to great effect during World War I to cure cases of dysentery. Born in Montreal, his family moved to Paris after the death of his father, and he then travelled extensively after completing secondary school. He returned to Canada when he was 24 where the federal government contracted him to conduct research into whether or not it was possible to ferment and distill maple syrup into a type of schnapps or whiskey. Solid Canadian research.

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D’Herelle travelled widely during his career, including stints at Yale University, the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the Tblisi Institute in Georgia, which remains at the forefront of phage therapy research under its current name of the George Eliava Institute. He went to Tblisi to study with his colleague from the Pasteur Institute, George Eliava, and also allegedly because of his political views in favour of communism. When Eliava fell in love with the wrong woman and became a victim of one of Stalin’s famous purges, d’Herelle quickly departed, fearing for his own life.

During WWI, he and his wife and daughters had produced and provided 12 million doses of phage therapy to the allied troops. At the start of World War II, d’Herelle found himself again in France, but under Vichy rule and house arrest, and was unable to help as he had in WWI.

Phage therapy was booming, but was delivering inconsistent results, no doubt because so little was still known about it. An actual phage was not seen under an electron microscope until 1939. At the end of WWII, penicillin had been developed and was soon seen as the drug of choice against many infections. Phage therapy, due to its difficulty to customize phages and related unreliability, lost importance in the West, and research was mainly abandoned, although as mentioned it continued in the Soviet Union.

A fascinating man, Felix d’Herelle was nominated for the Nobel Prize no less than 30 times, and was given honourary doctorates by four universities, including Montreal and Laval.

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The future of phage therapy research is mixed in Canada. While the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) recently ceased funding for the Felix d’Herelle Reference Centre for Bacterial Viruses at the Universite Laval last May, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) have just instituted an Emerging Team Grant for Novel Alternatives to Antibiotics. There are currently eight teams of researchers across the country utilizing over $10.7 million in funding, much of it focused on phage therapy.

Phage therapy holds perhaps our best avenue of defence against a coming wave of antibiotic-resistant infections, especially prevalent in our hospitals. It could also prove useful as a replacement for antibiotics currently used in animal production.

As Canada is home to one of the pioneers of molecular biology and phage therapy, it would make sense if we again took on a leading role in phage research. It would be a fitting homage to Dr. d’Herelle, who was finally admitted to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 2007.

Troy Media columnist Lee Tunstall has a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary in Alberta.

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