Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Genes Are Us


Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Taylor, My Great-Grandpa, and the Future of Antibiotics

• June 27, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While it’s not clear whether or not they worked for the Cleopatra star over a half-century ago, phage treatments could help solve the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

In March of 1961, Elizabeth Taylor was in London filming her next blockbuster, Cleopatra, when she fell ill with pneumonia. She underwent an emergency tracheotomy, and for days the press followed every development in her increasingly dire situation. On March 7, a Philadelphia-area newspaper reported that a local company, Delmont Laboratories, had put several doses of an unusual antibacterial treatment on the next jet to London at the request of Taylor’s doctors. With a touch of community pride, the paper reported that the treatment, “staphylococcus bacteriophage lysate,” was exclusively manufactured by Delmont Laboratories, and that “Christopher Roos, laboratory director and formerly senior bacteriologist for Sharpe and Dohme, played a major part in its development.”

It’s not clear what impact the treatment had on Elizabeth Taylor, but Christopher Roos, my great-grandfather, didn’t doubt its efficacy. My mother recalls that during her childhood visits to his house, he would treat her colds with a dose, administered as a nasal spray. Staphylococcus bacteriophage lysate is a form of antibacterial therapy based on phages, viruses that are the natural predators of bacteria. Discovered early in the 20th century, decades before modern antibiotics, phages have an obvious therapeutic potential that doctors and scientists were quick to explore. In the 1930s and ’40s, bacteriophage preparations were manufactured by major drug companies like Eli Lilly, and used to treat everything from cholera to wound infections.

Aside from the technological advances, there is now a major medical and economic reason to reconsider phages: the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance. The number of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections is growing rapidly, while the drug pipeline of new antibiotics is drying up.

But the hype got a bit ahead of the science. The biology of these viruses was not well understood, and phage treatments were difficult to prepare consistently. The effectiveness of the treatments varied widely, and while there were some clinical studies of phage therapy, many weren’t particularly rigorous by rapidly modernizing, post-World War II standards. In the mid-1940s, penicillin, cheap and obviously effective, began to be mass-produced in the U.S. By the time that Liz Taylor’s doctors called my great-grandfather, phage therapy was on the wane. Knowing that, the story sounds like the familiar scenario of the celebrity doctor who peddles some unproven alternative treatment to his famous patient.

But that characterization isn’t accurate. Despite the lack of rigor in the early studies, there is a long record of substantial evidence showing that phage therapy holds genuine promise. After phage therapy was superseded by antibiotics in the West, researchers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—where antibiotics weren’t as readily available—continued to work on phage therapy, with encouraging results. Some occasional studies continued in the U.S. and Western Europe as well. And now, phage therapy is in the limelight again, drawing the interest of researchers, governments, and biotech companies.

What changed? As my Washington University colleague Jeffrey Gordon and his co-workers wrote, we’re experiencing “the incipient rise of a phage biology renaissance,” thanks to modern DNA analysis technologies. Discovered before we knew that genes were made of DNA, we now know that phages are highly efficient gene-delivery machines. They inject their genomes into bacteria, hijack the bacterial machinery to make new DNA copies of themselves, and repackage those copies into protein capsules, bursting open the bacterial cell in the process. The capsules then diffuse away in search of new bacterial prey. By scouring oceans, soil, and our own bodies for phage DNA, researchers have discovered an enormous world of viruses with a tremendous bacterial-killing capability—according to one review, “phage predation destroys an estimated half of the world bacteria population every 48 hours.” The diversity of the world’s bacteriophages is an essentially inexhaustible source that we can trawl for potential anti-bacterial treatments, with the aid of today’s highly effective biotechnological tools. And researchers like Gordon and his lab members are exploring how phages operate in their natural habitats, such as the human gut.

Aside from the technological advances, there is now a major medical and economic reason to reconsider phages: the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance. As the Centers for Disease Control reported last year, the number of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections is growing rapidly, while the drug pipeline of new antibiotics is drying up. Two million people acquire antibiotic-resistant infections each year in the U.S., leading to over $20 billion in health care costs. And antibiotics themselves pose a major burden, accounting for 20 percent of all emergency room visits for adverse drug events.

Phage therapy has the potential to avoid all of these problems. While bacteria can become resistant to any one strain of phage, there are many different phage strains out there that could be combined into an effective, multi-strain cocktail treatment. And unlike chemical antibiotics, phages have their own genomes that can evolve to circumvent the defenses of resistant bacteria. Phage therapy also would not destroy the important community of healthy bacteria in our guts. Antibiotics wipe out these healthy gut bacteria, leaving people vulnerable to opportunistic infections by Clostridium difficile, a bacteria that the CDC reports is responsible for 14,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

The need is there, but will phage therapy actually work in humans? The answer is a cautious yes. The biomedical research community is certainly ready to try, bringing new funding, technology, and rigor to this old-fashioned approach to infections. A clinical trial of phage therapy for infected burn wounds is underway in Europe. The FDA has already approved phages to kill contaminating bacteria in food, and phage treatments for infections are being tested for efficacy in some animal studies, as well as for safety in a few human studies (PDF). Phage therapy may or may not become the major solution to our crisis of antibiotic resistance, but it is very likely that we’ll soon see a variety of limited but successful applications of phage therapy in humans.

Delmont’s product was a federally-approved drug in the 1950s, but as the FDA revised its approach to regulation in later decades, the small company struggled (PDF), and, in the 1990s, it stopped selling its bacteriophage treatments for human use. The company continues to make a USDA-licensed phage therapy to treat recalcitrant skin infections in dogs. When my great-grandfather sent those doses of phage lysate express to Liz Taylor, the time wasn’t quite right for phage therapy, scientifically or economically. But times have changed, and this old-fashioned treatment may become cutting-edge.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”

November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.

November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.

November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.

November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.

November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.

November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.

November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.

November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.

November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.

November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….

November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.

November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.

November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.

November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.

November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”

November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.

November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.

Follow us

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.