|Electron micrograph of phages attacking a bacterial cell|
Phages were discovered in the early 20th century, and people immediately began to think that maybe they could use phages to treat bacterial infections. However, this idea was more-or-less abandoned in the US and most of Europe after Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in 1928 and the use of antibiotics grew more widespread.
At the the time, antibiotics were hailed as miracle drugs, which they were, and the thought of antibiotic resistance was not on any one's radar. Phage research in the US continued and was critical to the development of many molecular biology techniques used today, but it mainly focused on intense research on a few strains of phage (including a famous one called lambda phage) that infect the bacteria E. coli.
However, research into the use of bacteriophages to treat infections, often called "phage therapy," continued for many years in some countries, including the former Soviet Union and France. Research into phage therapy continues in those countries today, and sometimes phages are even used to treat infections in people, but not yet in the US.
Because antibiotic resistance is becoming an increasingly dangerous global health threat (as we discussed previously), the "old" idea of phage therapy is making a comeback in the US. Some people see phage therapy as an potential alternative to antibiotics that may "save" us in the era of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. As some scientists and doctors are (quite alarmingly) saying that we are approaching the "post-antibiotic age," you might begin to hear more about bacteriophages or phage therapy. Let's talk a little bit about the past, present, and future of phage therapy as well as some of its known pros and cons.