Viral defenders

By Andy Coghlan in Chicago THE bacteria that kill nine out of ten patients with cystic fibrosis may in future by kept at bay by viruses extracted from sewage. These viruses, called bacteriophages, infect and kill strains of Pseudomonas aeruginosa that are resistant to imipenem, one of the front-line antibiotics used to fight the bacteria. Zemphira Alavidze and her colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore isolated three strains of bacteriophage from the sewage system at the university’s medical centre. Applied to laboratory cultures, they killed 80 per cent of 162 strains of antibiotic-resistant P. aeruginosa. The next step is to test the bacteriophages in animals. If these experiments are successful, the team hopes to start clinical trials. Provided the phage works, cystic fibrosis patients could benefit the most: the disease causes sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, so that sufferers are susceptible to infection by P. aeruginosa and other bacteria. Alavidze also directs a team at the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage Research at Tbilisi in Georgia, which has a huge bank of bacteriophages that are effective against a range of common bacteria. But Sankar Adhya of the US National Institutes of Health near Washington DC, who is also working on the bacteriophage approach (New Scientist, Science, 27 April 1996, p 16), is more cautious. His own animal research, also presented in Chicago, suggests that bacteriophages lose their potency unless given within hours of infection. “Rapid diagnosis is critical,” he says. More on these topics:
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