Bacteria-eating viruses clear infections in diabetic foot ulcers

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Viruses may be getting a lot of bad press lately, but it’s important to remember that there are some species that may be helpful to us. Bacteriophages (or just phages) are viruses that prey on bacteria, and now scientists have used them to treat Golden Staph infections in diabetic foot ulcers.

Bacteria are a long-time antagonist of ours, although since the invention of antibiotics we might have become a bit too complacent. Now, the critters are fast developing resistance to our best drugs, and if this continues even the most basic infections could become life-threatening once again.

New antibiotics are always in development, but to make sure we keep the upper hand long-term, brand new strategies will be needed too. And phage therapy might be one of them.

Among the most abundant lifeforms on the planet, phages are tiny viruses that infect and replicate inside bacteria. Already, they’re proving promising in fighting bacterial infections, taking the forms of inhalable treatments for pneumonia, wrapping materials that kill foodborne bugs or, failing that, drinkable chasers to clear up food poisoning symptoms.

For the new study, researchers from Flinders University in Australia used phages to target bacteria that may infect diabetic foot ulcers. These wounds can affect a large number of people with diabetes, and if infected and left untreated, can result in amputation or even death.

The bacteria in the crosshairs here is a worryingly common strain of Staphylococcus aureus that’s resistant to multiple drugs, earning it the nickname Golden Staph. The researchers mixed up a cocktail of three phages that attack this bacteria, then applied it as a topical solution to infected foot ulcers in mice. And it worked.

“The phages effectively decreased the bacterial load and significantly improved wound healing in multi-drug resistant S aureus infection – similar or superior to the currently prescribed antibiotic treatment,” says Garedew Kifelow, co-author of the study.

The team tested the phages against the antibiotic vancomycin, which is still the most commonly used for this kind of infection. However, bacteria are increasingly becoming resistant to it.

No other side effects were noted either, although much more testing will need to be done before this kind of treatment advances to humans. The phage therapy could also take other forms besides topical treatments.

“The next step in our research is to bind phages to a dressing to make a truly antibacterial dressing, with specific activity against golden staph,” says Peter Speck, co-author of the study. “The technology exists to make such a dressing, with a big advantage being that bound phages remain viable for a year even when stored at room temperature, making this approach ideal for use in hospitals and clinics – even in rural and remote settings.”

The research was published in the journal BMC Microbiology.

Source: Flinders University

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