Three bacteriophages, or bacteria-eating viruses, were administered to the young patient suffering from a major antibiotic-resistant infection following lung transplant surgery(Credit: R. M. Dedrick et al./Nature Medicine 2019)
A teenager in Britain has been treated with a cocktail of genetically modified viruses to combat with antibiotic resistant bacteria. The cocktail used two genetically modified viruses and one naturally occurring one to attack the bacteria killing the transplant patient. While the viruses successfully reduced her infections to levels she will survive, the treatment was not a complete cure. However, the treatment did save her life. This marks the first time genetically modified viruses were used to successfully treat antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Two teens in London, UK had cystic fibrosis. It is a nasty genetic disease that largely affects the lungs, but can have nasty effects on other organs like the liver and pancreas. They had operations to replace their lungs, as a life saving measure, but, unfortunately, they were infected with bacteria largely immune to known antibiotics. In a hail mary attempt, the doctors there reached out to virus bank in the US at the Howard Hughes Medical Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
At the University of Pittsburgh, the virus bank is the SEA-PHAGES program is largely an undergraduate program to collect and study viruses. This introduces students to the work and collects and categorizes the different viruses found by the students and others. The intent besides being educational is largely to build a library of viruses of the world. Most of those viruses have nothing to do with people and mostly attack bacteria. And that is what the doctors in London were looking for.
It has been long attempted to use bacteriophages, another name for viruses that infect and kill bacteria, instead of antibiotics. The efforts even predated the use of antibiotics, but were with mixed results at best. However, at the point where the teens were, near death and with no other hope of treatment, the doctors in London reached out via email to ask the SEA-PHAGES project if they had a virus that could kill the bacteria infecting their patients.
The SEA-PHAGES scientists scrambled to see what they could do. It was not what their work was intended for, but the chance to save someone's life wasn't something to balk at. They found potential viruses for both teens, but, unfortunately, the teenage boy succumbed to the bacterial infection and died. The teenage girl was given a cocktail of three viruses. Two of them were genetically modified. The treatment was a success.
The girl is now back home and her infection has been vastly reduced. However, it was not a complete cure. That said, her lesions are gone and she can live and has the potential to live a much longer life now.
The treatment was the first recorded case where someone's life was saved by the use of viruses to treat a bacterial infection. It has been long discussed and even researched, but never quite lived up to its potential. Until now. A young woman is alive today and medical science has a new tool for dealing with bacterial infections seemingly immune to antibiotics.
Engineered bacteriophages for treatment of a patient with a disseminated drug-resistant Mycobacterium abscessus
Phage therapy’s latest makeover
The SEA-PHAGES Program
Genetically Modified Viruses Help Save A Patient With A 'Superbug' Infection