By Bryan Gibb, Ph.D.
The world’s most frightening infections aren’t carried by plague-infested rats, rabid dogs, or chimps with Ebola. They’re transmitted by “superbugs” — disease-causing bacteria that can’t be killed by antibiotics.
This year, superbugs will kill about 700,000 people, including 23,000 Americans. That toll surge in the coming years as ever-evolving bacteria develop resistance to more antibiotics. By 2050, superbugs could kill 10 million people annually.
We can avert this grim future. “Bacteriophages” — viruses that infect only bacteria — can destroy antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The U.S. government, however, isn’t doing enough to facilitate the development of these viruses. That needs to change.
Antibiotics don’t work as well as they used to. From 2012 to 2014, the share of bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics rose from 5 percent to 11 percent.
Why? For years, doctors doled out antibiotics willy-nilly. Today, up to half of all prescribed antibiotics are unnecessary or used ineffectively.
Whenever antibiotics are used, some mutant bacteria survive. But the more an antibiotic is used, the more rapidly bacteria become resistant, reducing the effectiveness of the drug.
New treatments for superbugs are needed, but there have been no major novel antibiotic developments since the 1960s. That’s largely because pharmaceutical companies are abandoning antibiotic research. It’s takes ten years and $2.9 billion to bring a drug to market. So companies develop drugs that will make as much money as possible. Since drugs for chronic diseases make people life-long subscribers, and antibiotics are “one and done,” developers opt to make the former.
So researchers must look beyond antibiotics and devote more resources to novel treatments — like bacteriophage therapy. Our planet is home to trillions and trillions of bacteriophages — phages for short. Each phage evolves to attack a specific bacterium.
If a patient has a bacterial infection, she could take a cocktail of many phages in the hope that some will target the infection. The treatment can be modified with different phages if the first cocktail is ineffective. And phages rarely produce side effects.
Phages are already working wonders overseas. Doctors in the Republic of Georgia and Poland have used them for decades. One Texas woman with a debilitating infection recently flew 6,500 miles to Georgia to try phage therapy. Within weeks, she made a full recovery.
Despite this, phage research is underfunded. The National Institutes of Health only spent $473 million on antibiotic resistance research last fiscal year. Just a third of it went to phage therapy.
That’s chump change. Just look at how the government funds other health initiatives. Since 2004, the government has funneled $1.6 billion into bioterrorism defense research annually, even though there haven’t been any notable bioterror attacks.
Even a smallpox attack did occur, officials estimate it would only infect tens of thousands. By comparison, we know superbugs could kill millions.
It’s also difficult to develop phage therapies. Phages aren’t a static chemical compound — they quickly evolve just like the mutating bacteria, giving them an edge over antibiotics. Even when a bacteria develops resistance to the phage, new phages can be found or existing phages can evolve.
But this also makes it difficult to evaluate phages in a clinical trial. Right now, the FDA only approves phages for use on a case-by-case basis.
Going forward, phage therapy needs its own separate FDA approval track.
Superbugs are becoming more deadly. The government must realize the best way to defeat killer bacteria may be to give people harmless viruses.
Bryan Gibb, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Life Sciences at New York Institute of Technology.