Phages: The replacement for antibiotics?

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Phages: The replacement for antibiotics?

Phages: The replacement for antibiotics?

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Phages, which treat disease without the threat of antibiotic resistance, may one day cure bacterial illnesses in livestock without threatening human health.
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      Quantumrun Foresight
    • May 6, 2022

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    Antibiotics have provided humans with a crucial defense against a wide range of illnesses over the last century. However, their overuse has led to some bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to most, and in some cases, all known antibiotics. Fortunately, phages represent a promising alternative to defend against a dangerous potential future filled with antibiotic-resistant diseases. 

    Phages context

    Between 2000 and 2015, the use of antibiotics increased by 26.2 percent worldwide, according to a World Health Organization classification database. The overuse of antibiotics in recent decades has caused several targeted bacteria to build up resistance to antimicrobial drugs, making both humans and livestock animals more vulnerable to bacterial infections and contributing to the development of so-called “superbugs.” 

    Phages offer a promising solution to this developing trend because they function differently than antibiotics; simply, phages are viruses that have been engineered to selectively target and kill specific forms of bacteria. Phages search for and then inject themselves inside targeted bacterial cells, reproducing until the bacteria are destroyed, and then dispersing. The promise shown by phages to treat bacteria led Texas A&M University to open the Center for Phage Technology in 2010. In 2011, the United States Naval Medical Research Center began studying phages in earnest.

    PGH and several other startups believe that phages could be applied beyond human illnesses, specifically in the livestock and food production industries. The comparative affordability of manufacturing phage therapies and obtaining Federal Drug Administration clearance in the United States would keep pricing comparable with antibiotics and allow farmers to access new bacteria-fighting weapons. However, phages need to be stored at 4°C, which poses a logistical storage challenge to their widespread use. 

    Disruptive impact

    With phages proportionally self-amplifying the viruses necessary to destroy targeted bacteria, farmers would no longer be concerned by the dangers of bacterial disease in their livestock. Likewise, phages can also help food crops defend against bacterial diseases, thereby helping farmers to increase their crop yields and profits as larger crops can be harvested, and ultimately allow the agricultural industry to lower costs and increase their operating margins. 

    By the late 2020s, these impressive benefits will see phage treatments adopted at a commercial scale, especially in countries producing significant agricultural exports. The need to store phages at appropriate temperatures may also lead to new types of mobile refrigeration units being developed to support phage use within the agricultural and healthcare industries. Alternatively, the 2030s may see scientists develop methods of storage that do not require refrigeration, like spray-drying, which could potentially allow phages to be stored at room temperature for extended periods. 

    Implications of phage development

    Wider implications of phages being applied to treat dangerous bacteria may include:

    • Food surpluses achieved through increased harvests and excess production being distributed to countries suffering from food shortages. 
    • Increased life expectancy rates and lowered healthcare costs for human patients and livestock suffering from antibiotic-resistant infections that can finally receive treatment when none was available previously.
    • The accelerated growth of a healthcare sub-industry devoted to phage research, production, and distribution.
    • Modestly supporting population growth figures worldwide as phages may help reduce child mortality rates.

    Questions to comment on

    • What could the negative impact of phages be upon the agricultural and health industries? 
    • Do you believe superbugs and viruses could become resistant to phages? 

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