Genetically Engineered Virus Just Saved the Life of Patient with Drug-Resistant Infection

Genetically tweaked bacteriophages were able to beat life-threatening infection.

The life of a teenager has been saved by a genetically tweaked virus.

The British teen suffers from cystic fibrosis, - a genetic condition where the lungs can’t clear mucus or disease-causing bacteria. In a radical act to improve her quality of life, she had just undergone a double lung transplant, and all seemed well until massive infection started seeping out of her sutures.

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She had undergone the procedure in a similar time frame to another teenager who was also suffering from massive infections that were spreading across their skin and through their tissues. Worse still not even the most robust antibiotics were making an impact, and the two teenagers were placed in palliative care.

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Final hope lay in bacteria library in the U.S

But there was one final hope. Graham Hatfull a micro­biologist based at the University of Pittsburgh has spent the last two decades collecting the world's largest collection of bacteriophages—viruses that prey solely on bacteria.

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The doctors in London contacted Hatfull to see if he had a phage that could help the teens. Unfortunately, the male patient died from their infections before the unusual treatment could get started, but for the female patient, the treatment seemed promising.

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Recovery heralds in a new era of synthetic biology

She started to receive a combined treatment of three phages from Hatfull's lab - including two that were genetically modified to better attack her specific bacteria. While not out of the clear yet, she has shown huge signs of improvement, the skin lesions are gone, and she can slowly start to enjoy a better quality of life.

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The science behind this incredible story has been published in the journal Nature Medicine. It's the first known use of engineered phages in a human patient.

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The story offers huge potential for phages to be used more broadly in medicine and as a hopeful way of beating the new wave of superbugs.

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Personalized engineered virus

Hatfull uses a worldwide network of undergraduate research volunteer to help him collect for his library. Each volunteer that brings a new plague to the collection gets to name it - which has resulted in some interesting choices over the years.

When contacted by the doctors in London, Hatfull found three phages that could successfully invade the female patient’s strain of M. abscessus: the weirdly named Muddy, ZoeJ, and BPs.

Muddy was the best fo the three, and it had what's known as a lytic life cycle. The phage hijacks a bacteria’s machinery and makes millions of copies of itself, which eventually leads to the cell bursting apart and its death.

The other two were able to be genetically modified in a process developed by Hatfull so that they could also attack the teen's infection. The remarkable recovery of the patient heralds in a new era of synthetic biology.

But Hatfull warns that phages are not a mass cure for resistant infections. They are created to specifically so they can save one patient but will likely useless for another.

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