Can Bacteriophages Help Treat Human Disease?


Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria. Recent research investigates how they are interacting with the human body and immune system to keep us healthy.

Bacteriophages are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. They can be found anywhere that bacteria are found – in the ocean, in the soil, and even in living organisms, including humans. Although scientists have had little success turning these bacteriophages into useful treatments, they might form part of our natural immune systems. Earlier research has shown that bacteriophages are more common in our mucous membranes than in the general environment, suggesting they are at least involved in our defense against bacteria. A recent report in Science describes the current research examining the role of bacteriophages in the human body.

Australian researcher Barr and his colleagues recently published a paper, headed by Sophie Nguyen, showing that bacteriophages can cross into the cells of the human gut and the human body. Specifically, the researchers showed that cells preferentially take up these bacteriophages on the sides of the cell that are facing the outside world; for example, the cells that face the insides of our guts or lungs rather than the insides of our body cavities. The human body could absorb up to 30 billion bacteriophages per day.

Bacteriophages work in many different ways. They bind to cell membranes and reduce tumor growth, and they also decrease antibody production, helping to prevent rejection of transplanted organs or tissues. The constant absorption of bacteriophages each day may work to modulate the immune system. Other experiments have shown that they help induce the production of immune molecules that reduce inflammation and flulike symptoms. The bacteriophages may also act as red flags for the immune system since an influx of bacteria would likely also bring in an influx of bacteriophages.

Although Barr and colleagues’ research is interesting, it is possible that the cells they used to perform their experiments, cancer cells, may respond differently to bacteriophages than normal cells do. It’s also possible that these interactions occur in Petri dishes but not inside living organisms. Bacteriophages represent a potentially fruitful avenue of research, and future work will have to focus on verifying these findings in living organisms and finding ways to translate bacteriophages’ unique properties into treatments.

Written by C. I. Villamil

Reference: Guglielmi. 2017. Does a sea of viruses inside our body help keep us healthy? Science.

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