What if I tell you that the next time you acquire a bacterial disease, you should inject yourselves with a syringe full of viruses?

You’d probably tell me I’m crazy.

Well, turns out, this might be the future of medicines.

When we are infected by bacteria, we usually take antibiotics. But this rather careless use of anti-biotics has created a new problem- Antibiotic Resistance. In brief, it is when certain bacteria achieve immunity against everyday antibiotics. This makes the antibiotic less effective.

But scientists are looking forward to make a truly ground breaking breakthrough to tackle the threat that we face from Bacteria. And for this, they look straight at Viruses!

Viruses and bacteria are known to have an eternal rivalry, or as Herbert Spencer would call it, “Survival of the Fittest.” Specific viruses, called Bacteriophages, are known to destroy Bacteria. But how do they manage this?

Bacteriophages manage to do this in 2 slightly different ways, known as the lytic and lysogenic cycles. Before we move on, it is important to note that Viruses are basically genetic material, protected by layers of proteins.

In the lytic cycle, the Bacteriophage attaches itself to the membrane of the Bacteria with the help of long tail fibres. The long tail fibres then signal the base plate, which then  pierces the outer membrane of the bacteria host. The virus then releases its genetic material into the bacteria. This genetic material of the bacteriophage then destroys the genetic material of the bacteria, slowly killing the host. Once the bacteria is destroyed, the genetic material of the bacteriophage then forms another bacteriophage and bursts out of the dead bacteria host.

The lysogenic cycle differs from the lytic cycle as the genetic material of the bacteriophage is incorporated into the genetic material of the bacteria itself, instead of destroying it. This infected bacteria keeps reproducing, with each daughter cell being passed the genetic material of the bacteriophage along with the genetic material of the parent cell. This way, a wide number of bacteria are infected. After some point of time, the genetic material of the bacteriophage, which is by now present in millions of bacteria, activates, and destroys all the millions of host cells. After its activation, the lytic cycle is followed again.

We can use this process to our advantage, and cure certain bacterial infections with the help of Bacteriophages. This is known as phagetherapy. Bacteriophages are much more specific than antibiotics.They are typically harmless not only to the host organism (in this case,humans) but also to other beneficial bacteria (like the helpful gut bacteria).

Phage therapy is slowly gaining popularity all around the world for multiple reasons.

Firstly, resistance to phages is rather rare in bacteria, but if bacteria evolve to become resistant to bacteriophages, even bacteriophages will evolve to overcome resistance. Phages are also known to be effective against biofilms made of polysaccharide layers, which the antibiotics fail to penetrate. But there is a disadvantage to – the bacterophages infect only bacteria with specific strains.

The high bacterial strain specificity of phage therapy may make it necessary for clinics to make different cocktails for treatment of the same infection or disease because the bacterial components of such diseases may differ from region to region or even person to person.

So what is your opinion on this topic- do you find it an amusing endeavour, or are you just weirded out like me?

Author: Vedant Munjal
Editor: Aastha Munjal
Date of Publishing: 24th Apr 2017
Artwork by GEN