Antibiotics were “niet” during the Soviet era and, as an alternative, doctors used viruses to cure infections, and this idea is now being considered in the U.S. Overuse of these drugs has produced bacterial resistance, and many diseases that have previously been cured by antibiotics now have resistant bacteria as infectious agents. A recent news article in the journal Nature reported how Western scientists have taken up the study of using viruses to cure bacterial diseases as an alternative to using traditional drugs. In the heyday of the former Soviet Union, doctors did not have access to the antibiotics of the West and so they had to improvise and come up with other ways to treat patients with infections.
Viruses are also called phages (rhymes with dodges) and bacteriophages are viruses that kill bacteria. The way this happens is the phage gets into a bacterial cell and then forces the bacterial DNA to replicate the phage again and again. Eventually, the bacterial cell fills up with the phages and bursts. Then there are millions more phages that can get into other cells to spread the infection.
The key to how to use a virus as an antibacterial agent that the viruses fill up the bacterial cell and make it explode. Therefore, the bacterial cell is dead and gone. A major difference in how antibiotics are used to cure bacterial diseases and how phage therapy works is that the drugs kill many types of bacteria throughout the body. Phage therapy is designed to kill a specific type of bacteria. This is beneficial because some bacteria in the body are good for the body and promote health. For example, many bacteria in the gut are needed for proper digestion. Another major benefit of viral therapy over the use of antibiotics is that viral therapy leaves regular body cells alone. There is no harm to the healthy, normal cells of the body.
A potential problem here that would cause Western scientists to say niet to considering viruses rather than antibiotics to cure bacterial diseases, as was done in the Soviet Union, is patenting issues. Since viral therapy is centuries old, it would be hard for pharmaceutical companies to claim a particular type of viral treatment as intellectual property.
In March 2014 the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases included phage therapy as part of the plan to combat the problem of antibiotic resistance. Also, Phagoburn, which is the first multicenter clinical trial to use phage therapy for bacterial infections in humans, was initiated and funded by the European Commission in May of 2014.
The Phagoburn study will recruit 220 burn victims whose wounds were infected by common bacteria. These patients will receive a cocktail of well-chosen viruses that can enter the bacteria in different ways to eradicate them. If this viral therapy does not work, the burn patients will then receive standard antibiotic therapy. Considering the problems with overuse, saying niet to antibiotics may be part of the shift to the Soviet use of viruses to cure infections.
By Margaret Lutze