Menus Subscribe Search

Genes Are Us

cleopatra

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 PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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