Bacteria-eating viruses could aid battle against superbugs

University of Leicester team licenses technology to AmpliPhi, a pioneer in developing phage-based therapeutics

Dr Martha Clokie. Credit: Stefan Hyman, School of Biological Sciences, University of Leicester

Researchers from the University of Leicester in the UK are to collaborate with the University of Glasgow and AmpliPhi Biosciences Corporation to develop bacteriophage-based therapies that could have major implications for the fight against antibiotic-resistant infections.

Dr Martha Clokie, who led the research at University of Leicester’s Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, has been investigating an alternative approach to antibiotics, which uses naturally occurring viruses called bacteriophages – 'eaters of bacteria', or phages for short, to kill the bacteria that cause the hospital superbug Clostridium difficile (C. diff).

Clokie and her team have spent the past six years isolating and characterising 26 distinct C. diff phages that infect strains of C. diff bacteria. Of these, a specific mixture of phages have been proved in laboratory tests funded by the Medical Research Council to be effective against 90% of the most clinically relevant C. diff strains currently seen in the UK.

These phages, which are the subject of a patent application, have been licensed by AmpliPhi Biosciences Corporation, a Richmond, Virginia, US-based biopharmaceutical company and a pioneer in developing phage-based therapeutics.

The firm has already made progress in developing phages targeted against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes life-threatening lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients. It was also the first biopharmaceutical company to demonstrate the effectiveness of Pseudomonas phages in controlled and regulated human clinical trials.

The key advantage of using phages over antibiotics lies in their specificity

Under the terms of the collaboration, AmpliPhi will fund Clokie's team to progress the phage mixture to Phase I and II clinical trials. Evaluations of the efficacy of bacteriophage therapy and optimisation of dosing regimes will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, in the laboratory of Dr Gill Douce.

Clokie said: 'The key advantage of using phages over antibiotics lies in their specificity. A phage will infect and kill only a specific strain/species of bacteria. This is particularly important when treating conditions like C. diff infections, where maintenance of the natural balance of gut bacteria greatly reduces the chance of relapse.

'The use of phage-based therapy could eliminate the negative impact of antibiotics on the gut flora, minimise chances of relapse, provide patients with an effective, lasting safeguard against these life-threatening bacteria and relieve a substantial portion of the healthcare and financial burden this superbug poses on the NHS. Ultimately, I hope this will pave the way for a greater use of bacteriophages in the wider, global fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.'

Phil Young, CEO of AmpliPhi, said: 'C. difficile causes at least 14,000 deaths a year in the US alone. We are very excited to be working with both the UK-based teams to continue the development of innovative bacteriophage therapies. The progress has been impressive to date. We believe that this is the only phage-based development programme for this critical indication. Developing a treatment for C. difficile is in keeping with our global strategy to develop bacteriophage therapies for the rapidly escalating problem of antibiotic resistance. We firmly believe that this collaboration may result in a treatment that could benefit patients, clinicians and healthcare organisations alike.'

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