Eaters of bacteria: Is phage therapy ready for the big time?

By Carl Zimmer | May 20, 2011 11:36 am

Viruses that infect bacteria–known as bacteriophages–are the most abundant living things on Earth. (Yeah, that’s right. I called viruses living things. You gotta problem with that?) For nearly a century, doctors and scientists have dreamed of using them as medical weapons against the microbes that make us sick. Over at the University of Chicago Press’s blog, I discuss the enduring dream of phage therapy with MIT phage engineer Tim Lu, whom I profiled last year for Technology Review. This is my third UCP blog post to celebrate the publication of A Planet of Viruses; the next and last will appear next Friday.


Comments (13)

  1. Sven DiMilo

    Yeah, that’s right. I called viruses living things. You gotta problem with that?

    and if I do?
    (I do.)

  2. Well, let’s have it out…(in a civil discourse, of course)

  3. I like to think of bacteriophages as being on the threshhold of life and I think it is tragic that we get caught up in arguments like that when superbugs are killing thausands of patients. Surely by now we know enough about the science of phages that we should at least use them routinely when antibiotics fail!!!!

  4. Drone

    The Russians have been using phage therapy for years. Now the West has this “new” idea. Well, it will never come to be. Some Lawyer-driven Patent Troll will make it impossible to afford.

  5. There was also a good discussion of bacteriophage therapy on This Week in Microbiology a few weeks back. Link in my name.
    I am very excited about phage therapy, problem is that we need a large library of them because they are so specific to particular bacterial strains. We will get there one day!

  6. Mike Jozefiak

    I agree Bill, although until governments stop believing everything Big Pharma tells them, phages will not be used routinely any time soon. There is no money in using natural phages, just as there is no money to be made from advising people to eat better and exercise more. . Sadly, it all comes down to Daddy Big Bucks. The science and evidence are both there, so why is nothing happening? Answers on the back of a postage stamp to ……….

  7. amphiox

    There is no money in using natural phages

    And why should that be? You still have to grow the things, purify them, package them for consumption, etc, all of which are patentable processes.

    Plus there’s the possibility for genetically modifying phages….

    Saying there’s no money in natural phages is like saying there’s no money in aspirin, no money in penicillin, no money in Taxol, and no money in insulin, since those are all natural products, too.

  8. It is such a criminal shame that health issues always seem to be put on a back burner, due to lack of funds, but if we weren’t fighting everyone else’s wars, maybe the funds would be a little easier to find. This kind of research is just what is needed, as antibiotics seem to be given out like sweets, and soon there effective value will be nil.

  9. I’m cool with calling viruses living. They’ve got DNA or RNA, reproduce and adapt. I’ve thought this since i was very, very little. But the more i’ve learned about them, the more confident i’ve become.

    I’m currently trying to convince myself that prions are alive or not. A bit of misfolded protien causes cells to produce misfolded protien? They reproduce, but do they adapt? Protien, like DNA, does carry information…

  10. The real answer to the phage therapy problem was described in an article entitled:

    U.S. needs to open eyes to ‘phage therapy’
    Posted 7/6/2006 at

    The second problem is that there are far too many false starts – people get a grant and go to a river and do what Hankin etc did in around 1900. What we need is to make a deal with Georgia and Poland and get a few doctors and scientists, including some regulators, trained over there and they then come home and establish a number of government supported labs called ‘The Superbug Victim Felix d’Herelle Memorial Center for Experimental Phage Therapy’ to provide phage therapy to patients when antibiotics fail or when patients are allergic to antibiotics. Most countries have legal provisions where this is possible if there is the will. As someone said a few years ago – remember you could be the next victim of a superbug infection.

  11. Katerina

    yes Bill. As someone said -you could be the next victim of a superbug infection. I was not. Now I am. I live in West where GP does not know or pretend they know and give you antibiotics for all due to a shortage of time and mounten of pacience before the door. Is it right? Now I go to East for a help, for phage therapy. If this will work then The East can be proud of its work and its believe in people. Not the west.

  12. I was treated in Georgia in 2005 for MRSA and Ecoli and near death when I arrived…. Long story short, without disclosing too much, I have been working on a project for three years to commercialize numerous phage applications in South America… it will and is happening… Big PHarma does not control the entire world, and while South American profits are marginal in comparison to US, they are very real and sustainable.. and the medical and scientific communities in South America… well, we can learn a lot from them, their attitude and willingness to put the patients health before bottom line…

  13. Carissa McConnell

    In May 2011 I traveled from Florida to Tbilisi Georgia for phage therapy after 1 1/2 years of western medicine (IV antibiotics…Hyperbaric oxygen…surgeries, you name it) could not kill a serious MRSA infection. All I know is that it worked for me. I have been MRSA free and also antibiotic free since. I have nothing against antibiotics, but when they failed, I’m glad my own researching alternative treatments led me to bacteriophage and the means to become well again.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


See More

Collapse bottom bar