Researchers successfully use viruses to clear years-old, antibiotic-resistant infection

Drug-resistant bacteria are a very concerning, and growing, threat. Now researchers at the Erasmus Hospital, Belgium, are working to recruit viruses in our fight against them.

Stylized bacteriophages. Image via Pixabay.

The researchers report successfully treating an adult woman, who was infected with drug-resistant bacteria, using a combination of antibiotics and bacteriophages (bacteria-killing viruses). Such experiments are the product of several decades’ worth of research into the use of bacteriophages in humans. The results are encouraging and could pave the way towards such viruses having a well-established role in the treatment of drug-resistant bacteria.

Viral helpers

The patient had been severely injured by the detonation of a bomb during a terrorist attack. She suffered multiple injuries, including one to her leg, that damaged it down to the bone. After surgery to have some of the tissue removed, she developed a bacterial infection on the leg. The bacteria responsible was Klebsiella pneumoniae, which is known to be resistant to antibiotics. It also creates biofilms that physically insulate affected areas from antibiotics.

Doctors tried to clear the infections, with no success, for several years. Left with no other options to try, her medical team suggested bacteriophage therapy, which they performed with assistance from researchers at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi.

Bacteriophage therapy is not in medical use today as there are still concerns around the safety of using such viruses to treat humans with already-weakened immune systems, and many unknowns regarding when and how to best employ them.

To employ a bacteriophage in this role, one must be found that attacks the exact strain of bacteria that causes the infection. The researchers carried out a thorough search and testing process, and eventually found a suitable virus in a sample of sewer water. This was then isolated and grown in the lab, mixed into a liquid solution, and applied directly to the site of the infection. At the same time, the patient was put on a heavy antibacterial regimen.

Although it took three years of treatment, the patient is now free of the infection and able to walk again.

The team notes that their results showcase that such approaches can be effective treatment options when other avenues fail. However, they also explain that a better way of finding suitable bacteriophages must be developed before these interventions become viable in a practical sense. It simply takes too much time and effort to perform this search the same way the team did here for hospitals to realistically do this for multiple patients. There are currently no guarantees that a suitable virus will be found even if such a search is performed, as well.

The paper “Combination of pre-adapted bacteriophage therapy and antibiotics for treatment of fracture-related infection due to pandrug-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae,” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

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