Viruses Versus Bacteria

bacteriophageIn 1919, long before antibiotics were commonplace and long before the notion of drug resistance had emerged, a doctor in the east European state of what is now Georgia, Felix d’Herelle, gave a patient suffering from severe dysentery a seemingly lethal concoction of viruses. You might think such a drink would kill the patient, but these were no ordinary viruses, they were bacteriophages, the nemesis of bacteria.

The patient was well again within a week.

Thus was heralded in the age of phage therapy. Different viral strains were selected for almost every bacterial infection. Diseases were cured. What’s more, because bacteriophages are themselves in some sense alive, they can evolve to keep up with any resistance efforts mounted by the bacteria.

So what happened to bacteriophages? Why are the news headlines filled with stories of new deadly bacteria, such as MRSA, and the newly re-emerged forms of tuberculosis? Why are we so worried about outbreaks of E coli, salmonella, and other bacteria. Surely, we have a whole armoury of trusty phages to turn to that can wipe out the rank and file of resistance microbes quickly?

Well, we don’t, somewhere between the discovery of penicillin and the second world war, chemical antibiotics fell in to pharmaceutical line as the treatment of choice to deal with bacterial infections. Never mind the fact that within months of the first dose of penicillin being given doctors were already seeing resistance. Today, there are thousands of antibiotics on the market, some are even available over-the-counter in southern Europe. Moreover, in countries that cannot really afford to use them, individuals receive short dose regimens that don’t cure their illness and provide new opportunities for bacteria to develop resistant genes.

Swiss science editor Thomas Häusler tells the story of bacteriophages and phage therapy from its humble roots to its dimly recalled heyday of the 1920s and 1930s in his book Viruses vs. Superbugs. He tells a tale of rancidity and disease that were all but eradicated by bacteriophages but that is gradually returning as hospital wards succumb to the resistant hoards and various sectors of society, such as drug users and the homeless are dealt a deadly blow as TB and other “old” diseases crawl the streets.

In the USA alone some 90000 people die each year from these so-called superbugs. The likes of the World Health Organization and other official bodies agree that things can only get worse. Perhaps a discovery from the middle of the Great War of 1914-1918 could take the place of the dozens of obsolete antibiotics stacked on pharmacy shelves and provide a final cure for the bacterial infections that until the 1960s the medical profession had all but consigned to the history books.

18 thoughts on “Viruses Versus Bacteria”

  1. That’s better. I don’t mind approving a comment that actually adds something new to the blogosphere. Just don’t want to approve stuff that’s been cut and paste on other sites. Thanks for contributing. It’s appreciated (now).

  2. With all due respect it has everthing to do with what is discussed:

    “Why are we so worried about outbreaks of E coli, salmonella, and other bacteria. Surely, we have a whole armoury of trusty phages to turn to that can wipe out the rank and file of resistance microbes quickly? Well, we don’t, somewhere between the discovery of penicillin and the second world war, chemical antibiotics fell in to pharmaceutical line as the treatment of choice to deal with bacterial infections. Never mind the fact that within months of the first dose of penicillin being given doctors were already seeing resistance. Today, there are thousands of antibiotics on the market, some are even available over-the-counter in southern Europe. Moreover, in countries that cannot really afford to use them, individuals receive short dose regimens that don’t cure their illness and provide new opportunities for bacteria to develop resistant genes.”

    As the article points out, there is a viral and bacterial problem.

    The fact is that silver has been found to be very antiviral and antibacterial.
    Text Book of Materia Medica and Their Therapeutics by A.S Blumgarten, 6th Edition, M.D., F.A.C.P. printed by The McMillan Company in New York. 1935, the first Edition was written in 1914, points out that silver is to be used to treat infections caused by bacteria.

    Rarely are books found that contain references to silver, I happen to have one that dates back to 1914.

    Aside from the fact that research has proven that silver can kill HIV:

    My point is if Nano Particle have shown positive results, Silver Atoms due to their size will produces even better results.

    This article pointed out a problem, I simply pointed out a solution to a problem.

  3. It would be great if studies could be done by testing colloidal silver atoms on viruses and bacteria.

    For years now people have sworn by colloidal silver, however the 50 year old method of making colloidal silver only produces nano particles which happen to be 29 atoms clumped together to make a single cluster or particle.

    To make colloidal silver nano particles requires the use of dangerous chemicals, and the typical colloidal silver has been found to have adverse effects if too much is taken in.
    Now that there is a modern method of making colloidal silver atoms, I think it would be great if someone “picked up the mantle” and test them since this product is not made with chemicals, has a higher PPM than the Nano Particle production method, and the particles are of the size of an atom.

    Since silver has been proven to be anti viral and anti bacterial, it only makes sense to test and see what colloidal silver atoms will do to enhance the quality of life.

  4. Congratulations to Sciencebase regular Grace Filby who recently received an award for her work on understanding and promoting bacteriophages:

    “A researcher’s work on the health value of bacteriophages has been rewarded with a Churchill Fellows Silver Medallion. Grace Filby, of Reigate, Surrey, travelled to Canada, Georgia, Poland and USA last year to see the application of phages in hospitals and clinics and explore the potential for 21st century medicine. Their ability to kill bacteria was first reported during the First World War. They started to be used as a treatment for infections before antibiotics became widely available. Her journeys were funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, which offers grants to British citizens for travel-related projects that benefit society. The Trust, in June, recognised Filby’s work by awarding her the Churchill Fellows Silver Medallion.

  5. It may also be of interest to read the following from the Polish Academy of Sciences where I met patients who had already been treated with phages for MRSA bone infections. The website states:

    “The indications of the range of phage therapy are as follows: septicemia, regardless of their origin, postoperative infections, mucopurulent bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, pleuritis, furunculosis, otitis media, sinusitis, meningitis, acute lymphangitis, abscesses cutis and decubitus ulcer, pyogenic arthritis, myositis, osteomyelitis, suppurative infections after injuries of soft tissue, such as contusions, burns, pyogenic infection after bone fractures, and chronic infections of the urinary tract.”

    The reference is

    Medical opinion from Prof. Bill V. Way, a dermatologist in the USA agrees with me that some of these would be very deep infections, not just shallow infections. The Polish scientists state categorically that more than 80% of patients were cured, and that detailed information can be obtained from Prof. Andrzej Gorski and Dr. Beata Weber-Dabrowska, e-mail:

    It will be interesting to hear the final result of the Phase 2 UK clinical trial nearing completion –

    “Prof. Tony Wright: Pseudomonas is one of the very, very common problems we have with ear disease and discharge. Often unpleasant colour, can be very smelly, and I’ve seen patients as part of the trial who’ve had infections for twenty years. On and off, but more on than off.” In some instances there can be ulceration, mucopurulent discharge, and possible progression to very severe otitis externa, and in some very rare cases, even death.

  6. Please may I bring some specific research to your attention? It is explained in my Winston Churchill Report, as I mentioned.

    Please refer to page 5 regarding peritonitis: “The message is that phages could be applied therapeutically as prevention or rescue work, directly through the lymphatic system – without even having to go through the blood system. Indeed, the experiments with animals and case reports of human patients indicate that it works very quickly and efficiently. ” This is from research in Georgia.

    Then on pages 10 and 11, you will find some exciting news about novel applications of bacteriophages. For example, regarding Alzheimer’s, “Administered through the nose, the phages can reach the brain directly and rapidly. Her (Prof. Beka Solomon, Israel) team’s research with mice demonstrates that phages can reduce the extracellular plaque and also brain inflammation without adverse effects. This may open the way for various new treatments of other neurological diseases including Parkinson’s Disease and Huntingdon’s Disease.”

    You will also see that there is some recent Polish research (all published in English) “uniquely based on some inspiring observations that pieces of lung tissue bathed in HAP1 phages (lovely name!) had significantly less melanoma. The effect is clearly visible in photographs. The scientists state that the effect of phages is immunological. The research publications prove that, under well-defined circumstances, phages can have anti-metastatic activity (anti-cancer/anti-tumour).”

    There is more news from Poland about anti-inflammatory diseases of the bowel and renal function. There is also the possibility of new therapeutic treatments or preventatives for a range of viral infections such as adenoviruses and the Herpes virus.

    The other novel application that I am referring to in my report is that “research indicates that phages could help in treating oral bacterial infection and biofilm too”. There is a great deal of research and comment on this from the USA and the UK.

    As I understand it, bacteriophages do only ‘infect’ and destroy bacteria – but now it is becoming clear that they have other beneficial functions too in the body, that we were not aware of when they were first discovered and named 90 years ago. Perhaps this would explain some misunderstanding in the past in the role of bacteriophages regarding oncological and immunological interactions.

    So I stand by my comment: “They are certainly versatile little organisms, whose value has been vastly underrated so far.” Hope that helps with the discussion.

    I would like to add that there is very strong evidence for phage safety, and also some very useful evidence that it is much cheaper than antibiotics for the treatment of staphylococcal infections – ‘about half the cost of 10-day therapy with vancomycin and several times less compared with the other drugs’ (Miedzybrodzki R et al, 2007. )

    The web addresses for the report are and (with photo galleries, a blog, recorded interviews with scientists and clinicians, etc.)

    Many thanks. I hope you can help by letting people know.

  7. Thanks for your input Michael. As I understand it from Häusler’s book, that lack of antibiotics is not the only reason that Russian medics turned to bacteriophages. However, it does seem from the various case studies that shallow infections are most susceptible to bacteriophages while attacking an “internal” bacterial infection is a totally different matter. That isn’t to say that scientists shouldn’t continue to investigate antibacterial activity and putative anticancer activity. As we all know, there are no panaceas, just additional imperfect weapons in our battle against pathogens.

  8. From looking at all the comments I think you all have a very inaccurate understanding of what bacteriophages are. They are viruses that only infect bacteria. They are incapable of infecting cancer cells or other cells for that matter. Bacteriophages are attacked by immune cells and destroyed easily inside the body. Phage therapy is limited to shallow infections and cannot be used to treat internal infections. Antibiotics were used in the west because they treated internal infections very well while the east [USSR especially] were forced to use phage therapy because of the lack of antibiotics available. Until we find a way to alter bacteriophages to the point where our immune system doesn’t attack them outright, the treatment can only be used on shallow infections and nothing more. Cancer is being treated by certain genetically modified viruses, they are just nothing like bacteriophages by any means. They are as related to bacteriophages as we are to house cats.

  9. Thanks for the update Grace, I’ve removed the period from the second link as a bug/feature in WordPress means those little dots get incorporated into the URL.


  10. It’s definitely an area that needs following up, of only there were the financial incentive for the pharma/biotech to take this on in parallel with the quest for small, patentable molecules.


  11. I am not sure if this is relevant to the exact points you are making – however from my recent research visit to Poland, clearly a lot of work is being done on the anti-cancer activity of bacteriophages. I am referring to it briefly in the final report for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. There is more detail in my notes and also various published papers that they gave me for background reading. They are just starting up some new labs and all the equipment is there ready to be installed. I am sure this research area needs following up! The Polish scientists only very rarely go to international conferences with their posters or as speakers, so it is likely that their excellent work on this subject is not very well-known about yet.

  12. I think your right Chris, but there are some seriously distinct markers on the surface of cancer cells that could be targeted by an engineered bacteriophage injected directly into a tumour. Like you say though, preventing the phages attacking healthy cells would be very important, but this line of research could offer hope of attacking a whole range of cancers by “growing” bacteriophages for the particular type.


  13. I can only speculate, as I am not an expert, but I would expect that the selectivity of such a phage for cancer cells vs. normal cells would be a huge issue. Kind of like the chemotherapeutic drugs we use right now. Bacteria are quite distinct from human cells. Different cancers have different phenotypes, so one would have to choose one with a distinct membrane protein (maybe a fusion protein?) or something that the virus could recognize and ‘use’ to distinguish between normal cells and the cancer cells.

  14. Does anyone know if it might be possible to engineer a bacteriophage that would attack cancer cells rather than bacteria? Maybe someone already thought of this idea and is working on it, but it could perhaps provide a new kickstart to the field of phage therapy and get the gerontocentric pharma-biotech industry interested.

  15. Dear Dave

    I am delighted to read your article about phage therapy – and to see that my good friends and colleagues Mike in England and Bill in Canada have posted comments too. Do please visit my latest news page on

    It is very good news! To explain – this week I have received a letter from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. They had invited me to an interview in January for a Travelling Fellowship and the Science and Technology panel were very interested indeed in the whole subject. So my application was successful! You can see from their letter that they will be sending out lots of publicity. There are so many well-connected Trustees and members of the Council that I am sure that phage therapy will have to be looked at properly now by the powers that be. It has a lot of potential as we know, but it will need a shift in approach for them to be more careful and accurate in the way that bacteria are identified and the right medicine is administered – also to respect all the hard work and dedication of the FSU scientists and doctors – and not just to look on it as a money-making machine to be exploited via patents and big pharma. It will involve more international cooperation and a lot more trust in nature to kill the superbugs for us! As yet, nearly everyone seems to think that all viruses are baddies – even many dictionaries give the wrong information about phages, and they are not even mentioned in school science.

    Apart from that, in the last few months since Dr Zemphira Alavidze came over to England from the Republic of Georgia for the first time and met me and Mike, there are several people who have already been over to Georgia and Poland for treatment. I shall be going myself very soon, accompanying a patient and paving the way for future visits. Then I shall also be going to Poland and Texas to see what the situation is over there.

    I hope that little bit of background info is helpful for you! Also, the first human clinical trials (to Western standards) are just being completed at the moment in a London hospital so all in all, it is very good news really.

  16. Dear Mr. Bradley,
    How would you suggest we could make the NHS adopt phage therapy to save thousands of UK lives annually? The Helsinki Declaration article 32 states that whenever proven methods have proved ineffective, doctors must, with patient consent, try ‘unproven’ (my colons) methods. As phage therapy has been proven by over 80 years of use in Goergia, as effective, it should be a no-brainer for any Health Service to use it. I wonder if phage would be effective against beurocracy and vested interest?


    Mike Jozefiak

  17. Choosing to let patients die of superbug infections!

    It is my humble opinion that antibiotic-resistance is the mother of all regulatory-scientific misadventures; however, choosing to let patients die in the light of the overwhelming scientific evidence that bacteriophage therapy could cure many of these infections is a crime!

    [I cropped Bill’s original post, because he seems to have posted it elsewhere verbatim previously on other websites – e.g.

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