Using viruses to fight antimicrobial resistance
Dr Ben Temperton, Associate Professor of Microbiology at the University of Exeter, has set up the Citizen Phage Library, in collaboration with PhageDirectory and Exeter Science Centre.
A phage, or bacteriophage, is a natural, microscopic virus that attacks and kills bacteria. Phages exist naturally all over the planet and can be found in water, soil, or animals. They are the most common biological entities in nature and can kill bacteria that have become immune to antibiotics. They are clinically safe and precise, so they don’t harm the good bacteria.
Compared to the time and price needed to develop new antibiotics, this process is low-cost and only takes two to three weeks. Phages can also be combined with antibiotics, fighting a superbug on two fronts. This combined treatment reduces the development of resistance to both phages and antibiotics. It can even re-sensitise some pathogens to antibiotics that they were previously resistant to, increasing options for treatment.
Supported by MRC CiC funding, the Citizen Phage Library aims to build a database of phages for future use. If a patient needs treatment or if there is a new superbug, the library will act as a national resource to quickly address this. If no suitable phages exist in the current library, a portion of the samples are also stored, so they can be used to try and isolate new ones. As well as isolating over 200 viruses to date, this project serves to inform the public about antimicrobial resistance and advocate for phage therapy.
The project encourages citizens to get involved in hunting phages. The team sends people kits containing three glass jars to fill with water from their local areas, such as ponds or rivers. Once sent back to the lab, Dr Temperton’s team will process the sample, isolating and characterising any phages found. The phages are checked to ensure they don’t have any dangerous genes, and then they’re added to the database for testing against clinical strains. The Citizen Phage Library is currently helping to search for phages for clinicians in Switzerland, Canada and the USA.
Dr Temperton added, “The citizen who sent it in can name the phage found in their sample. My ten-year-old son was among the first to catch a phage — down the road from where we live in Devon, in the River Lemon. He named it LemonAid.
“LemonAid was found to infect and kill Acinetobacter baumannii, which the World Health Organisation lists as one of the drug-resistant bacteria that poses the greatest threat to human health.”
To take part, you can pick up a sampling kit at all Citizen Phage Library events. The kits should also be available online soon.
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