NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 15, 2006

In the 1920s and '30s, with diseases like dysentery and cholera running rampant, the discovery of bacteriophages (viruses found virtually everywhere that kill specific, infection-causing bacteria) was hailed as a medical breakthrough. By the 1940s, however, American scientists stopped working with phages because penicillin became widely available.

But now the equation has changed, say observers:

  • Many kinds of bacteria have become antibiotic resistant -- prompting a few Western scientists and patients to travel to former Soviet Georgia to give bacteriophages for treatment a try.
  • Phages have been used in the former Soviet Union for decades because scientists there had less access to antibiotics than their American and European counterparts did. Phages were a cheap alternative.

In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control, along with other federal agencies, warned that the world might soon return to a "pre-antibiotic era;" two million people each year get hospital-borne bacterial infections, 1.4 million of them resistant to antibiotics and 90,000 of them lethal.

  • Unlike antibiotics, new phage batches can quickly be whipped up to take the place of phages to which bacteria become resistant.
  • Using phages to treat infections at home for the moment seems unlikely; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would want the phages in each new concoction to be gene sequenced, but to do so would entail prohibitively expensive and lengthy clinical trials.

There are already multiple uses for phages without FDA approval, say observers. A promising area is agriculture and livestock, which is governed by less stringent U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.

Source: Daria Vaisman, "Eat Me: The Soviet Method For Attacking Infection That We Can Learn From," Slate Magazine, May 30, 2006.

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