Viruses that help: Is bacteriophage therapy the future of medicine?

If you had the right bacteriophage it could be used to treat an infection. But bafflingly, until last week, I had never even heard of this therapy, says Berenice Langdon

<p>Bacteriophage therapy research has had a chequered history</p>

Bacteriophage therapy research has had a chequered history

We develop phage cocktails as precision medicines to target and destroy specific harmful bacteria.’’ This is the mission statement of BiomX, a biotech company. Bacteriophage cocktails for treating bacterial infections? It sounds exotic, a bit James Bondy. But it has enough grains of truth in it to get me excited.

As far as I knew, bacteriophages were a medically unimportant group of viruses that only infect bacteria. They do this by injecting their genome through the cell wall, as viruses always do, like wasps injecting their eggs into living caterpillars. The phage then forces the bacteria to suspend all of its normal functions and mass-produce bacteriophages. The bacteria continues to do this until it explodes (or lyses, as the scientific term has it), killing itself and releasing the bacteriophages, which then continue the cycle by spreading and infecting more bacteria.

The idea of bacteriophage therapy clearly has merit. If you had the right bacteriophage, maybe it could be used to treat an infection. But bafflingly, until last week, I had never even heard of bacteriophage therapy. I was not taught about it at medical school, never read about it in any microbiology textbook and have never seen it used. Why?

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