Phage Therapy

So yesterday I was watching a TV programme called ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’ and they did a small section on alternatives to antibiotics, which sparked my interest to find out more about how we may be able to combat disease without the danger of breeding ‘superbugs’.

Phage Therapy is the use of bacteriophages to treat foreign pathogens causing infections in the human body. The way in which this works is the phage latches on to the foreign bacterial cell and injects its genome into the cell. It then reproduces within the bacterium and bursts out, killing the cell and releasing more phages to continue attacking the disease. The potential benefits of this alternative to antibiotics is that even if bacteria evolve to become resistance to the phages, because the phages are themselves living organisms, they can evolve to overcome this resistance. In addition to this, as bacteriophages target only very specific strains of bacteria, they will not kill useful bacteria like antibiotics do. Moreover, there are more bacteriophages on the planet than all other organisms (including all other bacteria) combined, so this source is in no danger of running out.

However, there are a few known disadvantages to phages, such as, firstly phages can only target certain strains of bacteria, which means it requires a lot of research and time to find the specific phage to combat the infection. Also, there is still a lot of research that need stop be done to ensure that all types of phages will not be harmful to the body. Finally, they are currently being used to treat bacterial infections in Russia, Georgia and Poland, but is not being researched anywhere, meaning that only people who live, or can afford to travel to these areas are able to be treated with this therapy.

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The Zika Virus

In recent months, there has been a lot of media attention directed towards the recent pandemic of the Zika virus in South America, especially since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Zika a public health emergency earlier in February this year. However, it struck me that, despite this attention, I actually had very little idea of what the Zika virus did to the human body, and so I decided to dedicate this post to finding out some more about it.

What is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus is a disease, originating from Uganda in 1947, spread by the Aedes mosquito  that causes a fever which commonly lasts no more than a week. The symptoms are mild and only show up in 20% of people who contract the disease; deaths as a result of Zika are incredibly rare.

So why all the fuss about this outbreak of Zika?

One of the reasons as to why this outbreak of Zika is causing such alarm is because it is suspected that the virus may be connected to microcephaly (when a child is born with an abnormally small head). For example, in brazil 2014, there were fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly, but by the end of 2015, following the outbreak of the virus, more than 4,700 cases had been reported. Scientists believe that the reason for this is that pregnant women catch the virus, and it then makes its way to the womb, where it kills stem cells in the brain of the foetus. Microcephaly results in the brain being severely underdeveloped, meaning many babies die, or, if they survive, have severe intellectual and developmental problems.

In addition, scientists have reason to believe that Zika is connected to a syndrome called Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), which is a rare nervous system disorder which can lead to temporary or  paralysis, as it causes weakening and damage to the nerve cells and muscles. Much like with microcephaly, there i not enough evidence to prove that GBS is definitely caused by Zika, but significant increase in reported cases in the lats year has raised suspicion.

How is the virus transmitted?

At the moment, Zika is able to be transmitted in four different ways: through mosquitos biting an infected person, and then biting an unaffected person; pregnant women transmitting the disease to their unborn child; sexual transmission,as it has been proven that Zika can survive in semen for up to two weeks (although it is still unknown whether women can transmit the disease to their sexual partners); and finally through blood transfusions.

How are people being protected against Zika?

Unfortunately, there is not currently a vaccination against Zika, so the only advice for people is to take caution coming into contact with the virus, for example:

  • Practise safe sex
  • Ban on blood donations for those returning from Zika affected areas
  • Pregnant women to postpone unnecessary trips to Zika affected zones
  • Cover up with long clothing
  • Empty buckets (mosquitos lay their eggs in standing water)
  • Use insect repellent
  • Sleep under mosquito nets

The future

Trials for a vaccine against Zika are expected to begin in this month, with larger scale trials to commence early in 2017, and therefore, in a best case scenario, scientists are hopeful that there will be a vaccine ready by January-February of 2018.

Thanks for reading!