In the summer of 2017, a 15-year-old girl went to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital to receive a double lung transplant. Her lungs struggled to even reach a third of their normal function. She was suffering from cystic fibrosis. It is a genetic disease that clogs the lungs with mucus plaguing patients with persistent infections.
Several weeks after her transplant, the doctors noticed some redness on her surgical wound. She also had infection signs in her liver. They then saw nodules on her legs, buttocks, and arms. Her infection had spread and traditional antibiotics were not working.
Currently, a new personalized treatment is being used to help the girl recover. The treatment is based on genetically engineering bacteriophages. These are viruses that can infect bacteria and kill them. In the next 6 months, almost all of her skin nodules vanished. Her surgical wound started closing and her liver function became better.
Graham Hatfull, said that the treatment could even be used broadly to control diseases such as tuberculosis. He said that the idea was to use bacteriophages as antibiotics to kill infection-causing bacteria.
Hatfull received an email in October 2017 that resulted in him and his team going on a months-long quest to find bacteriophages. This was in an attempt to help two teenagers who had received double lung transplants to help in restoring their lung functions. Both were infected with strains of Mycobacterium that cause tuberculosis.
Hatfull had spent more than 3 decades collecting bacteriophages. His colleague asked if any of his phages could be used to target the patients’ stains. Hatfull fancied the idea.
The phage therapy idea has been around for almost a century. However, there was not adequate data about its safety and efficiency. Doctors in San Diego were able to successfully use phages in treating a patient who had a multidrug-resistant bacterium in 2017.
A month after hearing about the two infected teenage patients, Hatfull received their bacterial strains samples. They looked for phages that had the potential to target the bacteria. In late January, they found what they were looking for; a phage capable of hitting the strain affecting one of the teenagers. However, they were too late; the patient had passed away earlier that month.
They had a few leads for the second teenage patient through 3 phages.
Muddy was able to infect and kill the patient’s bacteria but BPs and ZoeJ were not effective. The team modified the genomes of the two phages to make them bacteria killers. They combined the three into a cocktail, purified it then tested it for safety.
Doctors gave the cocktail to the patient in June 2018 through an IV twice every day with a billion phage particles in every dose. Six weeks later, a liver scan showed the infection had disappeared.
According to Hatfull finding the right phages for every patient is not easy. One day, it might be possible for scientists to make a phage cocktail that works to treat diseases such as Pseudomonas infections that threaten burn patients.
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