When penicillin was introduced in 1940, it was considered a wonder drug. Bacterial infections that had been life-threatening could now be cured within days.[1] Today it appears that we may be reentering a pre-antibiotic era as more and more bacteria have mutated and become resistant to antibiotics.[2]

In fact, the problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria may well represent one of the greatest medical challenges in the 21st century.[3] Overuse of antibiotics and the natural tendency of bacteria to mutate to inactivate antibodies have teamed together to create this crisis. The fact that as much as 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the US are given to livestock that we eat is a major contributor in the overuse of antibiotics.[4]

phage therapySome of the most common infections resistant to antibiotics are those contracted in hospitals (staph, MRSA, CRE, etc.), skin infections, pneumonia, meningitis, and sexually transmitted diseases.[5]

How serious is this problem? In 2013, more than 2 million Americans suffered infections resulting from antibiotic resistant bacteria. Of those, an estimated 23,000 died and the healthcare community fears it may get much worse. [6] [7]

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns of new highly resistant “superbugs” that are so untreatable one out of two patients dies from them. Click to Tweet.

For instance, a hospital in Los Angeles recently reported that as many as 100 of its patients had been exposed to CRE, a very deadly bacterial infection resistant to antibiotics. This exposure came from a simple, routine procedure involving an endoscope. At least seven of those patients contracted CRE.[8]

This is scary. We go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office for a routine procedure oblivious to the fact that we may be exposed to a deadly bacterial infection, against which they have no weapon.

Enter the Phage

As the science and medical communities scramble for ways to effectively kill resistant bacteria, one of the most promising solutions may be the phage.

Phages, or bacteriophages, are viruses that pose no threat to humans but are deadly to these antibiotic resistant bacteria. Click to Tweet.

The virus seeks out its prey, lands on the cell wall and drills into it taking over its DNA. The virus then rapidly reproduces and bursts the bacterial cell.[9]

The term bacteriophage literally means “bacteria devourer.” Phage therapy describes the medical use of phages to treat a bacterial infection.

Phage therapy may seem like a novel approach, but it actually predates antibiotics. Felix d’Herelle, a French-Canadian microbiologist is credited with much of the early research and development of phage therapy. He administered the first known application of phage therapy on humans in a French hospital in 1919. There, a phage preparation was given to a 12-year-old boy who was suffering severe dysentery. The boy’s symptoms subsided after a single dose and he fully recovered within a few days. Three additional patients were also successfully treated of dysentery in days following.[10]

learn more about phage therapyThose successes marked the beginning of extensive phage development. Preparations, or phage cocktails, were designed specifically to deal with E-coli, rhino, staph, strep, and many other bacterial infections.[11] These phage preparations were marketed in Europe by the company that became L’Oreal.[12]

Felix d’Herelle also used phage therapy in India to cure thousands from cholera and bubonic plague in those early days. And in subsequent years to the present, phage therapy has been widely practiced across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

In the 1940s, phage preparations were manufactured and distributed by the Eli Lilly Company here in the US as well. But with the advent of antibiotics, phage therapy went by the wayside in this country and most of Western Europe.[13] However, with the looming problem of bacterial resistance, phage therapy is again attracting attention.

How Phage Therapy Works

In phage therapy, the offending bacteria strain is identified and then a matching virus is found that will kill that strain. Click to Tweet.

A viral cocktail is prepared that the patient either drinks, is topically applied, or can be injected. If the thought of swallowing a virus makes you squeamish, remember that penicillin comes from mold!

The advantages of phage therapy are many:[14]

  • Phages occur naturally and are found in soil, water, in our bodies, and wherever bacteria thrive
  • Matching a phage to the target bacteria is relatively easy
  • Phages only kill the “bad” bacteria unlike antibiotics that wipe out the good with the bad
  • Phage therapy works rapidly without harmful side effects
  • Phage therapy is relatively inexpensive

How Effective is Phage Therapy?

For seven years, Laura Roberts had been suffering with staph and MRSA infections in her sinuses that had spread to her ears, lungs and stomach. The infections had ravaged her body and antibiotics were powerless against these bacteria. The Mayo Clinic told her that there was nothing else they could do for her. At age 51, she was given a few months to live.[15]

Laura heard about the Phage Therapy Center in Tbilisi, Georgia, and decided to make it her last ditch effort. Laura’s brother accompanied her on the trip, which nearly did her in.[16]

A couple of weeks prior to the trip, she had sent swab samples from her sinuses and ears to the clinic. They identified three different strains of MRSA. At the Phage Therapy Center, Laura began treatments and within three weeks her sinuses and ears were normal. When Laura returned to the US, she went to her ear, nose, and throat specialist who was amazed by her miraculous turnaround. Now, ten years later, Laura is still MRSA-free.[17]

Will the FDA Approve Phage Therapy in the US?

Phage therapy has been studied for decades at various universities across the US. But the reason that phage therapy may not take hold here has primarily to do with bureaucratic red tape, economics and intellectual pride.[18]

Phage therapy is very targeted and dynamic, so that as new strains of bacteria develop, new viruses must be identified to combat them. While this identification process is fairly simple, due to current FDA guidelines, it seems unlikely to obtain approval for each and every phage preparation.[19] Also, research and testing required by the FDA carries a very hefty price tag.

Furthermore, because these viruses occur naturally, a pharmaceutical company cannot patent them. This is where ethics and economics collide. Even though phage therapy may be the best solution to the growing problem of drug resistant bacteria, saving thousands of lives, phage therapy may not be perceived as financially profitable.[20]

As cold as it seems, we have to recognize that mainstream medicine and pharmaceutical companies exist to make a profit. A treatment, no matter how effective, if unprofitable will likely be ignored or discarded.

As for intellectual pride, the bulk of the research, testing and practice have occurred in what were Communist countries. Distrust, as well as foreign research methodologies, complicate our acceptance of phage therapy. And if it does move forward here, experts estimate it to be years away.[21]

Meanwhile, antibiotic resistant bacteria offer one more great reason for us to do all we can to keep our immune systems healthy. Please see these articles for information on how you can strengthen and maintain a healthy immune system.

And if you want to take advantage of phage therapy, for the time being, you may have to travel to Tbilisi, Georgia.


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Rob_FischerRob Fischer has been writing professionally for over 35 years. His experience includes writing curricula, study guides, articles, blogs, newsletters, manuals, workbooks, training courses, workshops, and books. Rob has written for numerous churches, for Burlington Northern Railroad, Kaiser Aluminum, and Barton Publishing. He has also trained managers in effective business writing. Rob holds two Master’s degrees, both focused heavily on writing. Rob has published eleven books and serves as an editor and ghostwriter for other authors.


[1] Kathryn Senior, PhD, “When Were Antibiotics Discovered?” Types of Bacteria, January 31, 2015, http://www.typesofbacteria.co.uk/when-were-antibiotics-discovered.html.
[2] Alexander Sulkvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr., “Bacteriophage Therapy,” American Society for Microbiology, 2001, http://aac.asm.org/content/45/3/649.
[3] Tori Rodriguez, “Essential Oils Might Be the New Antibiotics,” The Atlantic, January 16, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/the-new-antibiotics-might-be-essential-oils/384247/.
[4] Tori Rodriguez.
[5] U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Combating Antibiotic Resistance,” November 15, 2011, http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm092810.htm.
[6] Tori Rodriguez.
[7] David Templeton, “Bacteriophages Offer a Way to Fight Resistant Bacteria, but Their Use Still Awaits Approval in the U.S.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 1, 2013, http://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2013/04/01/Bacteriophages-offer-a-way-to-fight-resistant-bacteria-but-their-use-still-awaits-approval-in-the-U-S/stories/201304010124.
[8] Rachael Rettner, “‘Nightmare Bacteria’ Require Old and New Weapons,” Live Science, March 2, 2015, http://www.livescience.com/49999-nightmare-bacteria-cre-prevention.html.
[9] Koren Wetmore, “A Cure Exists for Antibiotic-Resistant Infections. So Why Are Thousands of Americans Still Dying?” Prevention, January 1, 2015, http://www.prevention.com/health/health-concerns/cure-antibiotic-resistance.
[10] Alexander Sulkvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr.
[11] Alexander Sulkvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr.
[12] Alexander Sulkvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr.
[13] Alexander Sulkvelidze, Zemphira Alavidze, and J. Glenn Morris, Jr.
[14] Koren Wetmore.
[15] Koren Wetmore.
[16] Koren Wetmore.
[17] Koren Wetmore.
[18] David Templeton.
[19] David Templeton.
[20] David Templeton.
[21] David Templeton.