After Antibiotics: The Seamonster That Could Save Your Life

As argued in my November post , I defend the view that bacterial exposure plays a key role in human health, and that it should be encouraged as much as possible, from as early an age as possible. My defense rests largely on irony: poor health outcomes (often fatalities) have exponentially increased in proportion to contemporary ‘cleanliness’. In fact, from over-sanitation of external elements to over-prescription of internal anti-microbials, we have failed miserably at understanding and utilizing the mysterious microbiological universe, and we’re about to pay for it. According to Medical Daily, antibiotic resistance will kill 10 million a year by 2050. That’s a lot of people close to home when you correct for the countries that aren’t as antibiotic-heavy as we are in the UK. In short, what I’m trying to say, in the nicest possible way, is that there’s a reasonable chance that you or your children will be one of those people. What I’m definitely not trying to say, is that any of you should be. So what the hell am I trying to say? Well, throughout the rest of this post I want to introduce you to something called ‘bacteriophage therapy,’ which is currently a taboo here in the West, but which might just end up saving you or someone close to you. However, before I do, we’ll need to go back in time.

The story: wet mustaches
Picture the scene: it’s the late 19th century, and Ernest Hankin (an unassuming bacteriologist with an obscene mustache) is surveying the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India. He notes that a mysterious “something” is in the water, somehow endowed with antibacterial action against cholera, and that can slip neatly through a fine porcelain filter. His findings go largely unremarked upon until 1917, when a man named Félix d’Herelle (Emperor Ming-esque facial hair) discovers a similar “something” elsewhere. His thing is endowed with antagonism towards dysentery, and after much thinking he concludes that it must be a bacteria-eating virus: a “bacteriophage.”  He begins to treat infected soldiers with this bacteria-eater, and is so successful that he sets himself up as a phage ‘therapist’. Let’s pause here – I want to tell you how bacteriophages work.
The science: friendly seamonsters
Phages can be found lurking in many places, such as soil, the earth’s crust, plant matter, and even in oceans (where they are most plentiful). Phages are viruses, and they invade bacterial cells. The kinds of phages we’re dealing with here are called ‘lytic’ phages, which have the ability to disrupt bacterial metabolism and cause bacteria to destruct. They differ from other viruses like AIDS and influenza, as they can only harm particular bacterial cells, and are otherwise harmless to humans, animals and plants. What makes them so awesome, therefore, is that they can be sent to target and obliterate a specific infection by a single bacterial strain, and will not obliterate the rest of the microbiota in the process. What’s more, is that they are modifiable, so there is potential for them to be just as deadly towards mutant bacterial strains as to original bacterial strains (a big deal in the context of antibacterial resistance). And if the latest results are anything to go by, they’re pretty damn miraculous: in a study of purulent disease of the lungs and pleura (a.k.a. a bad guy), phage therapy had an 82% success rate over a mere 64% by conventional antibiotic treatment. Considering intravenous treatment in isolation, it’s success rate was 95%. Now, I’m the last person to big up stats, but I’m all over these. So let’s go back and finish the story, so we can find out what the hell went wrong.

The sorrow: accidental suicide
 d’Herelle’s therapies are taken seriously at the end of the first world war, most likely because of the growing numbers of infected soldiers in need of cheap, quick and effective treatments. They are implemented on behalf of the Red Army in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, and on a smaller scale in the US. Plans are drawn up to initiate phage therapy globally. And then, all of a sudden, they are abandoned. The West (with the exception of Georgia) decides to implement the high-grossing, patent-friendly antibiotic protocol against infection, and phages are not spoken of again. As the years go by, any relevant literature on phages is in Russian, and Western Pharma is reluctant to translate it let alone consider it. As a final blow, when phage therapy begins to re-emerge in the 1980s, it is heavily criticized by Western figureheads (see Eaten Bayne-Jones or Kruger & Scribner publications) as d’Herelle’s initial treatments failed to incorporate placebos, and as a result the efficacy of phage therapy is dismissed. And here we catch up with ourselves, ladies and gentlemen, in a generation of obliterated microbiomes and chronic diseases, all in virtue of a war against something we didn’t understand, which is now a war against ourselves.
The future: spreading the word
It’s unfortunate that the greatest motivator for change is that we’re suddenly on borrowed time, as antibacterial resistance is already showing ominous signs of things to come. But change is coming: antibiotics stand to earn much less money over the years, so those seeking the biggest profits need an alternative ASAP. Consequently the FDA has now revised its position and has approved phage therapy for Phase 1 clinical trials. (There has already been one such trial for the treatment of ear infection, which has had great success). Furthermore, bacteriophage researchers are now engineering tailor-made viruses that can target strains resistant to antibiotics, as well as engineering phage genes that are responsible for coding enzymes that degrade the biofilm matrix (protective casing for bacteria). It’s all systems go, but if history has any chance of repeating itself, it’s important that word gets round – in at least two languages…

The end
So, now that you’re well-acquainted with the story of phage therapy and well-equipped with some awesome conversation starters for your next dinner party, I’ll leave you with a quotation from Wendell Berry:

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Emma Langley

by | Jan 15, 2017 | health | 0 comments

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