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Bacteriophages, or viruses that kill bacteria, could potentially help fight tuberculosis, an infectious disease that kills more than a million people every year. Radboudumc, in an international collaboration with South African and US research institutes, is studying how bacteriophages can be used to fight tuberculosis, Radboudumc said in a press release.

Why you need to know this:

Globally, many people still die of tuberculosis. New treatment methods could bring this number down dramatically.

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease claims more than a million lives annually, especially in Africa. It is a difficult disease to treat: regular antibiotic treatment of tuberculosis takes six months, in addition there is a multi-resistant tuberculosis variant, which does not respond to the most commonly used types of antibiotics. Treatment can then take more than a year.

The Nijmegen-based Radboudumc is now uniting with research institute TASK (South Africa), the University of Pittsburgh and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute (both from the US) in the Phages4TB project, for innovative research into new treatments for tuberculosis. For this, TASK receives a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, part of which is made available for research within the Radboudumc. In this research, researchers at these institutes are exploiting the potential of mycobacteriophages, viruses that specifically target mycobacteria such as tuberculosis bacteria.

Difference between antibiotics and bacteriophages

Bacteriophages (or phages) are viruses that can infect and kill bacteria. Treatment with bacteriophages was widely used before antibiotics were available. An important distinction between the two treatments is that antibiotics target several bacterial species at once, while bacteriophages are only active against one particular strain of bacteria. Bacteriophages can be a solution when antibiotics fail, but a drawback is that they cannot be used quickly against infections. This is because researchers must first detect the pathogenic bacteria, only then can they look for matching phages. Antibiotics are easier to deploy because of their broader activity, so for a long time phages received less attention. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in phage therapy, fuelled by increasing antibiotic resistance worldwide.

New tests in the lab

Physician microbiologist Jakko van Ingen leads the Nijmegen branch of the research and is positive about the opportunities for bacteriophages in the treatment of tuberculosis: ‘The disadvantage of phage therapy is that in many infections, you have to look for the right phages that attack the pathogenic bacteria. This is not always successful. The tuberculosis bacterium, however, has little variation; all species are similar. That is why we think we have a combination of phages to tackle with which we can treat most tuberculosis patients.’

Preparations for this were made at the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers there developed a phage combination that reacted in the laboratory to the major variants of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. From here, the collaboration continues.

Never before has a Dutch knowledge institute researched new treatments with bacteriophages targeting tuberculosis. At the Radboudumc, Van Ingen will conduct specific research into the activity of bacteriophages in the different conditions in which the tuberculosis bacterium can be found. Tuberculosis bacteria can hide in immune cells and go into a hibernation state. The study aims to find out whether bacteriophages are then still lethal to the bacteria.