The British bacteriologist Ernest Hankin is said to be the first scientist known to have observed the action of bacteriophages in the waters of Ganga and Yamuna in 1896 which rendered it the properties of ‘Amrit’, a curative agent in many infectious diseases of skin and even helped in cholera eradication. While his team could not develop those phages, from 1923 till now, scientists in Georgia and Poland have developed it as a major therapy for those who are infected with drug resistant bacteria. It is gaining grounds now in India too.
The frequently used medicines to cure bacterial infections today are antibiotics, which literally mean ‘opposing life’, on the contrary, phages are becoming a ‘life giving’ therapeutic agent.
The widespread use of antibiotics can be realised by the fact that a simple bacterial or viral infection leading to a common cold or cough problem is being treated using heavy doses of antibiotics these days, that has led common bacteria to form resistance towards them-what to say of serious diseases like tuberculosis. The first popular antibiotic was penicillin discovered by Alexander Fleming and in 1928 doctors started prescribing it widely to treat bacterial infections. Just a few years later, Fleming started to warn the public about resistance to the same ‘godly Pencilin’ that was once considered the drug that will be the answer to all bacterial infections.
The antibiotic solution itself becomes a problem in some severe infections. So is there a solution to antibiotic resistant infections or does one have to keep changing one antibiotic after the other?
Disease reversal without use of antibiotics is what phage therapy is all about, and is fast gaining grounds in the countries like USA and Belgium. In countries like Georgia and Poland, it has been practiced for nearly a hundred years. Research in this field has now become choice of many institutes in India too.
Pranav Johri, who himself suffered from antibiotic mania once is now involved in propagation of this age-old therapy. Johri’s breaking point in life came when his doctor told him that there was no cure for his prostatitis, a swelling of the prostate gland. His life had become hellish until he found phage therapy.
“In 2016 I had suffered from an antibiotic resistant infection of prostate gland. After six months of failed treatments with oral antibiotics and intravenous antibiotic injections, doctors had given up on being able to treat my condition and told me to live with this condition and its debilitating symptoms.
That was an unacceptable situation for me, and after much research I came upon phage therapy as an alternative treatment for treating antibiotic resistant infections. I undertook phage therapy in 2016-17 and within a few months I recovered from my antibiotic resistant infection,” he said in a conversation with this correspondent during his visit to Haridwar.
Based on his personal experience and having realised how severe the problem of antibiotic resistance is in India, he founded Vitalis Phage Therapy in India with his wife Apurva. The mission of the young couple is to make the therapy accessible to the people who are suffering from antibiotic resistant infections in the country. “In the last 19 months we have been able to help 34 people recover from their antibiotic resistant infections by facilitating phage therapy for them,” adds Apurva.
A general observation is that whenever one takes an antibiotics course, the body metabolism gets disturbed. A whole lot of indigestion, loss of appetite and other problems occur. However, phages are safe to apply in the human body as they are only active against their target bacteria and don’t affect normal microflora of the gut system. There is usually no side effect, according to Dr Naomi Hoyle of the Eliava Phage Therapy Center in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Notably, scientists at the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute are working on using bacteriophages for controlling foaming and bulking in wastewater treatment plants.
Often the question arises in one’s mind that the new drugs made from phages will likely meet the same fate as their predecessors–that bacteria will eventually develop resistance to them.
To this Johri reasons, “It is much more difficult for bacteria to develop resistance to phages as compared to antibiotics for the following reasons. First, as bacteria evolve to develop resistance, phages also evolve to overcome bacterial resistance.
Second, phages are very targeted and specific. They are not broad-spectrum like most antibiotics. So when you take a phage against one bacterium, it leaves the other bacteria undisturbed, thus reducing the need for those bacteria to develop resistance.
If a bacterium does develop resistance, it is always possible to create a new custom phage against it. It takes about eight weeks to create a custom phage, as opposed to creating new antibiotics which can take up to 15 years and over a billion dollars to come to market.”
The main usages of phage therapy is in urinary and gastro infections, respiratory infections, hospital acquired infections, dermatology and paediatrics.