Antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise worldwide. But intriguing new research is using modified viruses to combat bacterial disease. Scientists have created viruses engineered to use the CRISPR gene-editing system to attack bacteria DNA and cause the cells to self-destruct.
Viruses that attack bacteria are called bacteriophages and scientists have used them in the past to treat infections. These viruses tend to target specific bacterial strains and are therefore considered safe on the body’s natural microbiome. But the fact that naturally occurring viruses can’t be patented has posed an unlikely challenge to implementing large-scale therapies that used them.
Now, companies are developing techniques where an engineered virus could infect the target bacteria and the results are promising. In such therapies, the virus would carry DNA instructions that cause the bacteria’s own cas enzymes to turn on itself and either slice its own DNA in a specified location or completely destroy the DNA sequence. In either case, the bacteria essentially commits suicide.
The promising technology was showcased at the annual CRISPR 2017 conference at Montana State University earlier this month.
So far, the engineered phages were shown to successfully save the lives of mice infected with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. And at least two companies want to begin clinical trials within the next two years.
“I see some irony now in using phages to kill bacteria,” said Rodolphe Barrangou, chief scientific officer of Locus Biosciences in Research Triangle Park, at the conference.
But there are some challenges ahead for this technology. Any such treatment may require large volumes of phages, which could trigger an immune response in the body. And the phages may transfer antibiotic-resistance genes to non-resistant bacteria.
So far, the engineered phages were shown to successfully save the lives of mice infected with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
Still, companies pursuing this research say it could turn the tide in our fight against serious disease – especially superbugs that have grown resistant to every line of antibiotic treatment today.
And farther in the future, we could even use these phages to target bacteria in the human microbiome thought to be linked to problems such as obesity, autism, and even some cancers. In addition to life-saving antibiotics, viruses could very well turn into our next line of defense in the fight against disease.