Viruses are associated with disease, but bacteriophages are viruses that poses no such threat. Instead, they can be utilised in the global fight against antibiotic resistance.
Bacteriophages have specialised over more than three billion years in infecting, killing and keeping bacteria under control. Some of these viruses kill so efficiently that they can be used purposefully instead of or in combination with antibiotics. Bacteriophages destroy bacteria without creating the same problems and side-effects as antibiotics. They could thereby become an effective, natural and environment-friendly alternative.
Bacteriophages have a number of applications in such areas as human and veterinary medicine, aquaculture, agriculture and food processing. They can become effective, natural and environment-friendly tools for combating antibiotic resistance in both people and animals.
The effect of bacteriophages against bacteria was described by French-Canadian microbiologist Félix D’Herelle in the 1920s. Experiments were conducted in subsequent years, using bacteriophages against infections.
Successful treatment with these viruses depends on knowing exactly which bacterial strain are making the patient ill, so that the right bacteriophage can be deployed. This knowledge was not available in the 1920s and 1930s, and use of bacteriophages more or less ceased when Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin.
However, bacteriophages continued to be used to treat infections in the Soviet Union and are still utilised today in such countries as Poland, Russia and Georgia when antibiotics prove ineffective against acne, sores, and skin, eye and gastrointestinal infections as well as against festering post-operative wounds in patients infected with antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria.
Postwar research on bacteriophages laid the basis for developing molecular biology and modern gene technology. With modern diagnostic methods and increased knowledge of pathogenic bacteria, a renewed commitment is being made to developing bacteriophages as one solution to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.