Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Year of the Phage" in Review: Three Major Advances for Phage Therapy

An artist's interpretation of a phage, as
part of the year of the phage.
Bacteriophages were first described by Frederick Twort in 1915 as agents that destroyed bacteria, leaving small areas of destruction (plaques) on bacterial lawns. It is now one hundred years later and we have made great advances both in our understanding of bacteriophage biology and how to use these viruses as tools to understand basic, general principles of biology including DNA being the hereditary material of life. Because 2015 was one hundred years following the first description of phages, it has been termed the year of the phage by many scientists. Not only does this year bear symbolic importance, but it actually marks some important advances in the field of phage therapy. Because we are nearing the end of the year of the phage, I thought it would be appropriate to briefly go over some of the advances I thought stood out the most.

The Year of the Phage Conference

The year began with an awesome symposium for the year of the phage, which was hosted by Forest Rohwer and colleagues in California. Although I could not attend, I learned through others that it was an incredible event. The group celebrated phage science, art, and camaraderie, all while promoting the importance of phage research and phage therapy. The event was even covered in the New Yorker, which was a valuable avenue for teaching the general public about phages.

US Government Interest: NIH Phage Therapy Workshop & White House Microbiome Report

This past summer, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) hosted a workshop focusing on bacteriophage therapy as "an alternative strategy to combat drug resistance". This was a two-day event that brought together many leaders in the field to discuss the current state of phage therapy in the country, and how we can move forward. This was a particularly important event because it marked a clear commitment of the NIH to pursue phage therapy as an alternative to antibiotics.

US microbiome funding by type of microbe. Bacteria are the main focus,
along with "community", and viruses are a minor portion.
More recently, a group of the National Science and Technology Council and other agencies published a White House advisory report for microbiome research. This is a revealing report in many ways, but the important point for us here is that the committee focused on three areas of need within the field. One of those three areas was the study of virus communities, which currently represents only 3% of microbiome research investment. The report goes on to highlight the importance of funding virome research, which largely includes research related to phage therapy.

Gates Foundation Grant for Phage Therapy

As I alluded to above, phage therapy has flown under the radar for many decades. In fact, phage therapy has even been dismissed as a primitive medical approach with little utility compared to other contemporary treatments, including antibiotics. Contrary to these claims, not only has this year marked important advances in federal attention and interest in the field, but it also marked an increase in attention from private funding agencies.

Earlier this year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation opened a grant competition that will provide funding for research groups to develop phage therapies that promote newborn and infant gut health in low-resource settings and developing countries. To my knowledge, this was one of the first large grants to be offered by a major, private US institution to support phage therapy research and development. Not only will this benefit a lot of children in need, but it also marks a high level of faith that a major charitable organization has in this technology. This is likely a sign of the ball starting to roll on this up-and-coming phage therapy technology.

The microbiome field has been expanding, and with that
has come expanded funding. Let's hope we can keep this
level of interest going as we explore new and exciting
avenues within the field.

Final Thoughts

So in the end, the year of the phage turned out to be a great year for phage therapy. With some great publicity for the cause, and some solid interest from both the federal and private sectors, the field made some solid progress that will likely continue in the years to come. This is certainly the beginning of an up-and-coming field that has been a long time in the making. It will be exciting to watch the field grow in the coming years.

If you are interested in reading more, or checking out my sources, please follow the links I added above. And as always, please feel free to add your questions, comments, or concerns below. Additionally, please add the events you thought were important to the year of the phage. I would love to hear what you think!

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