Bacteriophages were one of those bits of seeming esoterica we had to learn about in medical school. These alien invader looking organisms that kill bacteria by injecting their DNA through the cell wall, were tried as long as a a hundred years ago as a means of combating bacterial infections - but their use was eclipsed by the “miracle” of antibiotics.
But they seem to be showing some hope to combat the growing scourge of drug-resistant strains of bacteria that are populating hospitals, and prompting prophesies of doom – so that some strains of bacteria have become virtually untreatable.
In a cooperative venture between Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, and Professor Graham Hatfull of the University of Pittsburg that made headlines in May of this year, Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway, age 17, was successfully treated to clear an infection that had a 99 percent chance of killing her.
Isabelle has cystic fibrosis and had been wrestling with a T.B like infection, Mycobacterium abcessusthat was under control with conventional antibiotics. But she needed a lung transplant, and the immunosuppressant’s to stop rejection reactivated the Mycobacterium.
This time antibiotics weren’t working and she had been taken home to die.
Her mother, who had read about phages, asked if they couldn’t help.
This prompted the contact between Great Ormond Street and Pittsburg. Over several months, Professor Hatfull and his team developed phages specific to Isabelle’s infection, and shipped them to England .
After several weeks of infusions, Isabelle seems to have made a miraculous recovery going from deaths door to a normal life as a school girl again.
It’s a story that I suppose seems to vindicate that maddening “you might need to know this sometime” attitude that our lecturers used to justify forcing us medical students to learn all sorts of apparently irrelevant esoterica in medical school.