UK & World News
Superbugs: Bacteria-Busting Viruses May Be Key
Bacteria-busting viruses have been discovered that could be used to tackle a common hospital superbug.
Scientists at the University of Leicester identified a group of viruses that infect and destroy clostridium difficile, a highly infectious bacteria that causes more than 14,000 cases of severe diarrhoea each year.
C diff, as it is known, is increasingly resistant to antibiotics and in elderly patients the infection can prove fatal.
But laboratory tests show the newly identified viruses - called bacteriophages - are effective against 90% of C diff bacteria.
Lead scientist Dr Martha Clokie, from the University of Leicester, said: "Ever since the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, antibiotics have been heralded as the silver bullets of medicine.
"They have saved countless lives and impacted on the wellbeing of humanity.
"But less than a century following their discovery, the future impact of antibiotics is dwindling at a pace that no-one anticipated, with more and more bacteria outsmarting and out-evolving these miracle drugs.
"This has re-energised the search for new treatments."
Bacteriophages are natural bacterial killers. They latch on to bacterial cells and inject their genetic material, which is then replicated many times over, causing the bacterial cell to burst open.
The released bacteriophages go on to infect more bacteria.
The researchers are now working with the US firm AmpliPhi to develop virus-loaded capsules that patients would swallow.
The viruses will not infect the patient's cells, and because they are highly specific for particular strains of bacteria they are unlikely to damage friendly bacteria in the stomach.
"This is particularly important when treating conditions like C diff infections, where maintenance of the natural balance of gut bacteria greatly reduces the chance of relapse," said Dr Clokie.
The work, funded by the Medical Research Council, has so far identified 26 viruses that target C diff strains.
Dr Des Walsh, head of infections and immunity at the MRC said: "Antibacterial resistance is a major and growing threat to health globally.
"New treatments and therapies are sorely needed."
Bacteriophages have been used for many years in some Eastern European countries, but have been dismissed by most Western scientists up to now.