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back to article Bacteria-chomping phages could kill off HOSPITAL SUPERBUGS

UK research into nature's bacteria-munching bacteriophages is to be commercialised by American biopharma company AmpliPhi. Leicester University signed an exclusive license this week with AmpliPhi, which will fund further work on combatting antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" using phage treatments. Little is still known about …

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Unhappy

Well all except Russia

Where Stalin set up a phage research institute in his home state.

Once again when the UK has a development the first question they ask seems to be "Who can we sell it off to."

Or is because when they approach UK companies they are told "Not interested?"

And BTW that ability of bacteria to evolve defenses to all antibiotics would be practically impossible without the drug industry selling them to livestock (mostly chicken) farmers as "growth promoters," exposing lots of bacteria to sub lethal doses and allowing them to pass on their resistance through plasmids.

Thanks for that Big Pharma.

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Re: Well all except Russia

There's evidence that plasmid transfer is much rarer than previously thought, and that the genepool is simply thinning to make certain strains of a given bacteria prevalent.

The intuitive explanation for this theory starts with the observation that all current antibiotics are naturally occuring, and have been on the planet (in fungi, mainly) since long before we climbed down from the trees, so the variety in naturally occuring antibiotics most likely reflects a variety in naturally occuring bacteria.

The guys proposing this theory point to high levels of similarity in the bacteria's germlines, suggesting common descent rather than genetic transfer.

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Holmes

Re: Well all except Russia

"Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) is a cross-species form of genetic transfer. It occurs when the DNA from one species is introduced into another. The idea was ridiculed when first proposed more than 50 years ago, but the advent of drug-resistant bacteria and subsequent discoveries, including the identification of a specialized protein that bacteria use to swap genes, has led to wide acceptance in recent years."

http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/590-does-evolution-select-for-faster-evolvers-horizontal-gene-transfer-adds-to-complexity-speed-of-evolution

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Re: Well all except Russia

"And BTW that ability of bacteria to evolve defenses to all antibiotics would be practically impossible without the drug industry selling them to livestock (mostly chicken) farmers as "growth promoters," exposing lots of bacteria to sub lethal doses and allowing them to pass on their resistance through plasmids."

Which is why MRSA, VISA and VRSA all occur now in environments around hospitals, not farms. Right?

I guess we should've stopped hospitals from raising chickens to feed the nation!

Oh, we didn't let them start.

We'll not even go into the rarity of plasmid transfer, you failed on reality alone.

Because, MRSA, VISA and VRSA all are human transmitted, not transmitted by fowl or beast.

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Unhappy

Re: Well all except Russia

Perhaps you should look up the outbreak in Guatamal in 1967 where about 7000 people suffered multiply resistant dysentery.

It's a standard text book case.

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I remember this!

This was on Tomorrow's World quite a few years back. Nice to see the relentless progress of science continues.

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Re: I remember this!

I remember this too BBC 2 Horizon - Phage the virus that cures. 1997.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phage_therapy

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Facepalm

About time!

Someone has been holding back research on these.

Anyone wonder why?

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Re: About time!

No, not wondering at all.. No wondering needed!

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Re: About time!

"Someone has been holding back research on these."

Erm, large investments in antibiotics, lack of interest in reinventing the wheel with phage research, which would, each germ line one by one, have to go through the regulatory wringer.

In short, totally different method of treatment, totally different technology, totally the same regulatory set of hurdles for each type of phage to be used as an antibiotic. Hence, there isn't suppression, only a lack of interest in the expense.

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Re: About time!

Hence, there isn't suppression, only a lack of interest in the expense.

Man, your economics is harshing our conspiracy mellow. Stop being reasonable.

(Incidentally, for those of you with crappy garage bands, may I recommend you consider "Our Conspiracy Mellow" for your next album title? Thank you.)

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Happy

This is all very well, until the phages reach the new nuclear reactors, and get mutated into giant person-eating super-phages. Just like we all saw in those documentaries, 'The Prisoner' and 'Pac-Man'.

What will we do to fight the killer-phage menace, that we caused in order to fight the killer bacteria menace? I know an old woman, who swallowed a fly...

On a serious note, hooray for research. Although I don't see how we can know they're the most abundant life-form in the universe. I'm sure the emperor Tharg the Magnificent will have a good deal to say about that.

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Re: Giant person-eating super-phages

When they get large enough to be visible to the naked eye, couldn't we just hit them with a baseball bat?

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Re: Giant person-eating super-phages

You could, but by that time the Phage(s) will simply the devour the bat as you're swinging it.

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Re: Giant person-eating super-phages

"When they get large enough to be visible to the naked eye, couldn't we just hit them with a baseball bat?"

Since we've left reality aside, I'll stick with my football bat.

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Re: Giant person-eating super-phages

I had one of those. ;-)

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"the most abundant life form in the universe"

Phew! Some claim.

I'd love to see the evidence to back that one up.

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Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

Lifeform is probably a stretch since most definitions of life make the virus something of an amibuity but provided you accept that and a liklihood that life in the universe will probably mostly consist of microrganisms then phages which live on those microrganisms are likely to be the most abundant DNA delivery machines in the universe.

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Happy

Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

Ah ha! It is on you to disprove them.

Pronouncements like this are safe to make because they can't be falsified. It isn't exactly scientific to say such a thing, the wording is horrendous, but that statement was obviously aimed at the public to assuage fears. Talking to the non-scientific public is very difficult because the public is panicky, and generally ignorant, but at the same time you risk looking like an ass to the scientific community by oversimplifying. It's a tough thing to do well.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

I would like to see you disprove it. Or for anyone to do it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

Invisible flying turtles are actually the most abundant form of life in the universe. And I would like to see you disprove it. Or for anyone to do it.

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Facepalm

Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

"Ah ha! It is on you to disprove them.

Pronouncements like this are safe to make because they can't be falsified. It isn't exactly scientific to say such a thing, the wording is horrendous, but that statement was obviously aimed at the public to assuage fears."

If you're putting forward an idea, the burden of proof is on you, not everyone else. It's only after you have have presented some evidence supporting your idea that the onus switches to everyone else to try and disprove it.

I'm nominating "Isn't exactly scientific" for understatement of the year.

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Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

The evidence is as follows. A millilitre of sea water can contain 9×10 to the power of 8 bacteria of which about 75% are infected with a phage. There's a lot of sea water on Earth. I can't be arsed working it out. It's more than 10 though.

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Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

that statement was obviously aimed at the public

That statement was obviously aimed at the Reg readership by Mr Orlowski, as flame bait.

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Re: "the most abundant life form in the universe"

A millilitre of sea water can contain ...

It's easy to argue that phages are the most abundant DNA-delivery entities (as noted by various commentators, "life form" is dubious) on Earth. Glossing that as "in the universe" requires rather different warrants; it's a statement of faith, not empirical observation or other scientific basis.

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Alert

Time to start stocking up...

All hands, stand by for Zombie apocalypse...

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J P

So that's who bought the tech then...

http://forums.theregister.co.uk/forum/containing/1287589

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Factually incorrect

USSR continued research into phages long after WW2 and developed usable phage treatments which were used in the food industry.

In the UK fresh fish and fresh meat counters gets a "healthy" dose of disinfectant spray (makes me laugh when I see organic labels on them). USSR actually used a bio-weapon instead allowing them to do with much lower doses of disinfectant :)

So there is a massive amount of prior art on that. It may be abandonware and without a present owner, but it is prior art none the less.

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Re: Factually incorrect

"USSR continued research into phages long after WW2 and developed usable phage treatments which were used in the food industry."

Wasn't and isn't only the food industry. I recall hearing and seeing a program about customized phage lines available for order.

Send in your pathogenic bacteria, get the phage to treat the infection.

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"combat 90 per cent of the known strains of C.diff"

And the 10% left that will become prevalent?

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Thumb Down

So here we have a problem we created (antibiotic-resistence). How do we propose to solve it? Use a more aggressive alternative to antibiotics.

How about we just let our immune system work and only use antibiotics in life-threatening situations. Or does that cut to deep into the pockets of Big Pharma? We can't have that, of course!

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You're alternative is going to result in a lot of people dying. The advantage of phages that they co-evolve with the viruses they eat so it is more difficult for a virus to completely out-compete them.

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The problem is that many of these are ALREADY life-threatening. And what about people with compromised immune systems (transplant patients, HIV/AIDS patients, etc.)? On a more important front, antibiotics help to facilitate surgery, as the immune system is inherently compromised during a major surgical procedure (innards can be exposed to pathogens normally limited to the outside so they lack defence).

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You're alternative is going to result in a lot of people dying. The advantage of phages that they co-evolve with the viruses they eat so it is more difficult for a virus to completely out-compete them.

Except they don't eat viruses, they eat bacteria - the clue is in the name, bacteriophage, bacteria destroyer.

Nice try, no cylindrical smoking object.

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Yes, but...

...antibiotics don't evolve. Bacteriophages are just virii that attack bacteria, rather the virii which attack animal cells and that you're likely to notice yourself. As the bacteria evolve, so will the virii. Even within your body.

The bacteriophage research centre in Tbilisi has been going for decades and doles out a range of creams, shots, etc. for patients with bacterial infections.

One of the reasons why this hasn't been pursued in the West is that fact that the phages are not under your control so there's a paranoia that they'll evolve and turn on the patient. The other, bigger reason is that it's unpatentable in its current form.

There was a documentary about this a few years ago (probably on Channel 4) where they chanced on on of the research teams taking on a bacterial outbreak of some sort that was centred at a hospital in Georgia. The method they used was ridiculously low tech; sample the sewage from the hospital, culture it, examine the cultures for evidence of phage activity, replicate the cultures where there's phage activity and then extract the phages and mix them into a cream or whatever. Not a PCR machine in sight.

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"You're alternative is going to result in a lot of people dying."

Em...no - the OP clearly says that in life-threatening cases you would still use antibiotics. Simply do not prescribe antibiotics when they are not needed. Over-prescribing of antibiotics both to humans* and to healthy animals in livestock industry IS a big problem. Besides improving antibiotic resistance of 'bad' bacteria, it also kills of symbiotic 'good' bacteria (and then people spend millions in health shops buying probiotics... go figure!!)

Of course as you say:

"The advantage of phages that they co-evolve with the viruses they eat so it is more difficult for a virus to completely out-compete them.",

phages have uses and advantages of their own, and their use + research into should be encouraged. But we should still stop using so much antibiotics

*I know from some doctor friends that many patients insist on being given antibiotics even when they don't need them, and even when their ailment is viral not bacterial. The byzantine in-rules of medical institutions make it a huge problem for doctors to refuse. Maybe there should be a standard placebo 'antibiotic' for these cases

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Trollface

Pedant alert....

"The advantage of phages that they co-evolve with the viruses they eat ..."

Phages don't eat viruses.

(Also note the correct use of an apostrophe...)

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Boffin

"You're alternative is going to result in a lot of people dying. The advantage of phages that they co-evolve with the viruses they eat so it is more difficult for a virus to completely out-compete them."

Err, yes & no.

"Phage" is the old name for virus. These are viruses that parasitise bacteria.

They are highly evolved to attack those bacteria, which is part of why they are quite useful, in there is very little danger of them jumping (several major) rungs up the evolutionary ladder to attack humans, unlike that favorite host organism of genetic engineers e.coli (which happily lives in humans already.)

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Okay, you got me on that one. Should have been paying more attention.

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@James

"Maybe there should be a standard placebo 'antibiotic' for these cases"

It's an interesting idea, but ethically dubious. Your doctor would have to lie to you when prescribing the placebo because (s)he would obviously know it's a sugar pill. This applies to all prescriptions of placebos, not just here. Having your doctor lie to you, even if it's in your own and society's interests erodes the trust that should exist between the two parties.

Once this "got out" that "apoxylalacillin" is a placebo there would be a backlash against the medical profession, claims of "big pharma" conspiracies, and possibly the movement of people away from medicine and towards alternative therapies because "doctors lie about medicines". Now the latter is fine if it's a self-correcting problem like a cold, but could be fatal if the patient had a serious condition that really wasn't going to be helped by a nice cup of herb tea and a dangling crystal.

Education has to be part of the solution. The general lack of knowledge of basic medical matters is appalling. I'm not advocating that everyone should be a doctor, just that there must be room on the curriculum somewhere to teach about antibiotics, anti-virals, why most drugs will not resolve the problem instantly, why to always finish the dose of any drug course, how to deal with simple injuries, why going to casualty with athlete's foot is a dumb idea etc. etc.

there also needs to be support for doctors refusing to prescribe where it is not necessary. Maybe upon refusal to prescribe the patient is given a form where the doctor writes on it "viral infection, no suitable medication" and the patient can send it off as a complaint. The patient then gets back from NHS Complaints Central a letter saying that no prescription would help, and have they noticed how they now feel better as their very own immune system has sorted it out.

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Re: @James

"It's an interesting idea, but ethically dubious" - yes I agree completely, my comment was more than partially tounge-in-cheek. It just amazes me that a doctor could get in trouble from a patient complaint after refusing to prescribe antibiotics for a viral infection.

As you say, the key is education

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"How about we just let our immune system work and only use antibiotics in life-threatening situations. Or does that cut to deep into the pockets of Big Pharma? We can't have that, of course!"

Ah, the "big pharma" bullshit.

Ignoring the hell out of assholes insisting that they be prescribed an antibiotic for a generic viral cold millions per times per cold season.

No, it's all physicians being the willing servants of the pharmaceutical industry.

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"The problem is that many of these are ALREADY life-threatening."

Erm, they're called bacteriophages for a reason. They specialized exclusively upon certain species of bacteria *only*.

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"The advantage of phages that they co-evolve with the viruses they eat so it is more difficult for a virus to completely out-compete them."

Er, phages are a virus. They are a virus that exclusively predates upon bacteria.

Their replication is sufficiently inefficient enough to produce mutations faster than bacteria can typically adapt to.

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a) very interesting

b) keep up the Silicon Roundabout attacks.

That Bong dude hasn't written much lately, did his funding run out? Time for a C round.

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WTF?

What took them so long?

I saw a programme on the BBC about 10 years ago all about the Russian use of Phages on bacteria. They would find a new bacteria in a hospital, go to the sewage effluent of the hospital and find a corresponding phage which eats it. The only reason it was a Russian secret was all the research was published in Russian in Russian journals, which western scientists hadn't been reading. They've been using them since the 60s or 70s...

Not complex....

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Re: What took them so long?

What took them so long is that actually it _is_ quite complex.

Phages are also not as easy to use as antibiotics - they're quite specific, which means you need to know what you're dealing with before you can treat. Also, they can only be used externally (counting the gut as external - which it is, topologically speaking).

All of this together means that there's relatively little money to be made from them for most applications.

So the upshot is that they're great when you're dealing with known outbreaks, or a chronic, recalcitrant infection. The former is what the Russians were dealing with. The latter seems to be the niche targetted by this work. I suspect that this has only recently become common enough to be a worthwhile approach.

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Re: What took them so long?

All of this together means that there's relatively little money to be made from them for most applications.

And now we see the real reason that big pharma has been persuading the medical establishment in the West that they're too risky.

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Boffin

"despite being the most abundant life form in the universe"

Or, more accurately, in the known universe. To put it another way, within our solar system.

GJC

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Re: "despite being the most abundant life form in the universe"

@Geoff Campbell. Nice one - and to take it to it's only currently provable or disprovable limit "in the more carefully studied parts of this earth".

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