What are viruses good for?

It’s viruses that can make us sick with a cold or flu, chickenpox or shingles, herpes, and hepatitis.  Some viruses increase risk of cancer.  You knew all this.

But viruses are very specialized to attack just one particular kind of cell.  Most viruses, in fact, are specialized to attacking the most available life forms, and by far the largest biomass on earth is bacteria.  A virus that attacks bacteria is called a bacteriophage.

In a journal article published yesterday, scientists at Yale reported the first use of bacteriophages to cure a patient of bacterial disease.  We have known for decades that bacteria are evolving resistance to our antibiotics faster than we are developing new antibiotics.  If humanity is to avoid a return of diseases banished long ago, we will need a new weapon against bacterial disease.  Bacteriophages may be an answer.

A Connecticut doctor suffered from an infection after he received an aortic arch replacement operation and required massive doses of antibiotics to keep him alive. But the bacteria infecting his heart, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, had developed a resistance to drug treatment. His physician, Dr. Deepak Narayan, was then contacted by research scientist Benjamin Chan who had been screening natural samples for bacteriophage to see if these viruses might be effective against drug-resistant infections. He told Narayan that a virus-hunting expedition at Dodge Pond in Connecticut netted a bacteriophage with affinity for Pseudomonas aeruginosa and suggested that experimental phage therapy might be used to combat the infection.

Read more at ScienceBlog


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