Phages to the Rescue

(May 8th, 2015) With antibiotic resistance becoming an ever-growing threat, the search for alternative therapies and their clinical application is more important than ever. The P.H.A.G.E. foundation is currently working towards that goal.

On July 16th 2009, a foundation with an ambitious aim was founded in Brussels, Belgium. The name of this non-profit organisation is “Phages for Human Application Group Europe” or P.H.A.G.E. Its members are actively working towards promoting phage research and therapy in Europe. They also want to establish a regulatory framework for phage therapy. “The members of P.H.A.G.E. and its Executive Board are scientists with a biological/microbiological background, experienced medical doctors, surgeons, and experts in health economics or legal, regulatory and quality management areas,” says Christine Rohde, a member of the Executive Board of P.H.A.G.E. and curator of the phage, plasmid and E. coli collections at the German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures in Braunschweig.

Phages are small, virus-like particles that infect and kill bacteria. They have the wonderful property of picking their bacterial victims specifically and at the same time causing no harm to humans. Also, as another advantage over antibiotics, phages are able to mutate their genome to counteract the constantly emerging mutations in the bacterial genome. Antibiotics are static molecules independent of their environment, while phages have all the machinery to become ‘alive’ once inside the bacterium. As a result, phages can be used for both the prevention and cure of bacterial infections with few or no side-effects to the patient.

Christine Rohde shares a short introduction to the history of phages and P.H.A.G.E.: “Not only when looking at the situation in Europe, but thinking globally, initiatives like P.H.A.G.E., fostering activities towards phage application, were missing. It is difficult to believe that phage therapy as a realistic option to cure severe bacterial infections has been neglected in the ‘Western world’ for decades. Phages were first discovered exactly 100 years ago by Frederick Twort and 2 years later by Felix d'Herelle. In their very early publications an antibacterial potential had been attested to phages because the phages' effect was unquestionable. Up to now, phages have been and are applied successfully in Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. In the meantime, the antibiotic pipeline has been running dry and bacteria will be antibiotic-resistant before a new antibiotic drug comes on the market. ‘Simple, unspectacular’ opportunistic pathogens can kill immuno-compromised patients and numbers of severe cases or deaths have increased dramatically. The tendency to ‘collect’ drug resistance mechanisms is without doubt an intelligent bacterial survival mechanism and a selective advantage. Only ten years ago, the dilemma was not really comparable to today’s situation. The foundation of P.H.A.G.E. was a reaction to the threatening situation and to the growing number of cases of patients’ deaths.”

Rohde also says that the greatest challenge of P.H.A.G.E. will be the establishment of a “framework dedicated to the explicitly legal therapeutic use of phages for human medicine”. Clearly, both patients and physicians want phage therapy to become a reality.

One current project supported by P.H.A.G.E. is called PHAGOBURN. Funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme and launched in 2013, it is the first European clinical study on phage therapy to treat E. coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa skin infections in burn patients. P.H.A.G.E. also initiated the Therapeutic Phage Bank in collaboration with the German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures. It’s free to deposit phages in the Therapeutic Phage Bank where they are “kept safe, secure and authentic for future use”.

“Experts, including members of P.H.A.G.E., know about the intriguing potential and effective curative use of phages. Hence, it became necessary to interact and collaborate on such an organised basis like P.H.A.G.E. provides. Initiatives like P.H.A.G.E. are actually extremely important and this will probably continue as it is not very likely that we soon can say: the work is done. Humankind needs phage therapy as one medical option,” Christine Rohde says.

Nadejda Capatina

Image: P.H.A.G.E.

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