Sunday, December 1, 2019

The power of a single voice - war on superbugs

Lytic cycle of T4, a virulent phage. 

The media loves stories of looming crises and dire predictions. The story of antibiotic resistant superbugs has been around for over a decade and it periodically gets retold because there is a lot of truth to it. It’s a story of evolution by inadvertent artificial selection that is happening on a global scale. We are losing the ability to fight common bacterial infections because we have abused and overused common antibiotics. This has created bacteria that are immune to all but a few of our most potent antibiotics, and those too are disappearing fast. Soon people will be dying of infections that were once easily treated by modern medicine. We will soon revert back to a time before antibiotics, at least that is the "superbug" threat and the crisis being circulated by mainstream media.

On of my oldest friends, a high school buddy, a friend for more than 50 years, recently saw a media report on superbugs and the losing battle. He thought that that media report had omitted an important tool in the medical arsenal to fight common infections. So he wrote to the media outlet and pointed to a long known but overlooked and under used tool to fight infection: Phage Therapy. Subsequent stories from other media outlets prompted similar letters/emails, and he started getting thank you acknowledgments for his troubles. Here is what CTV News, a recipient of one of those emails has done with the story recently. It gives hope to those affected by these superbugs, even restoring people who were near death to good health.

The story of bacteriophages and their life cycle, is often told by biology teachers (like I was) to senior biology students as a model for how viruses work in general (see diagram above). It shows how viruses cause disease by destroying cells and also shows that viruses are not cells at all, so are not affected by antibiotics like bacteria. It’s only been in the last twenty years that there are anti-viral drugs that are commonly used today, mostly for immunocompromised patients (as I am now). Antibiotics have been around for almost 100 years, but commonly used for the last 80 years. 

I’d like to think that my old friend’s emails have influenced and corrected the dire warnings posted in the press, radio and TV. It's a lesson for us all: speak up when you can help. Certainly phage therapy appears to be a viable treatment for patients as a last resort as the CTV story (linked above) explains.

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