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Avoiding the ‘Antibiotic Apocalypse’

14 May

Research being conducted by a team of scientists in UCC could arm us with a crucial weapon against what has been deemed the ‘Antibiotic Apocalypse’.

Research being conducted by a team of scientists in UCC could arm us with a crucial weapon against what has been deemed the ‘Antibiotic Apocalypse’.

The team at the SFI Research Centre APC Microbiome Ireland – led by Professor Colin Hill – is exploring how bacteriophage can be used against antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’.

A bacteriophage, or phage, is a virus that infects bacteria, replicating and working rapidly to kill that bacterial cell.

With antibiotic-resistant superbugs expected to kill more people than cancer and heart disease combined by 2050, phage are expected to play a crucial role in alternative treatment.

“Phage can replicate much faster than bacteria, and what we want to do in medicine is take advantage of that fact,” explains Prof Hill.

“What we would like to do, is kill bacteria in certain situations – particularly infections – and phage seem to offer the possibility of doing that.

“In theory, all you have to do is get one phage there, and it will multiply. And as soon as it’s killed all the target bacteria it can infect, it’s got nothing to replicate on again, and it disappears. It’s almost like a self-dosing narrow-spectrum antibiotic.”

As a world-leading phage research lab, the APC is working to identify the bacteria targeted by each newly-discovered phage that crosses its radar. From there, the team is researching how phage can be used to support antibiotics – crucial work at a time when more and more bacteria are becoming resistant.

“There will be cases where phage will be more appropriate, and that will protect the antibiotics that we have.”

“We’re not in any way saying we’re trying to replace antibiotics, or that antibiotics are bad and phage are good; it’s just that there will be cases where phage will be more appropriate, and that will protect the antibiotics that we have. It will help us to not abuse antibiotics, not overuse them,” says Prof Hill.

Beyond therapeutics, the potential impact of phage in medicine is far-reaching. The APC team believes that phage could play a pivotal role in diagnosing debilitating diseases at an earlier stage.

“We know there are bacteria associated with gastrointestinal cancers, IBD, IBS – chronic diseases that really are a huge problem, and we think phage could be better diagnostic biomarkers of those diseases,” Prof Hill explains.

“Treatments possibly won’t involve phage, but finding out early that someone has polyps – which might lead to cancer – could be really useful to know.”

The team has also been exploring how phage could potentially shape the human microbiome, or the full array of microorganisms in our bodies.

“In someone who’s got a chronic disease, and their microbiome has shifted, you want to shift it back,” explains Prof Hill.

“There, we would be using whole communities of phage to try and force a bacterial community back into a beneficial state.

“We’re very excited about the possibilities for phage.”

For more information about APC’s research, simply follow this link.

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