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New ways to fight bacteria

Doctors and infectious bacteria are locked in an arms race. In this ever-escalating battle, the bacteria evolve ways to avoid every drug humans throw at them.

The conflict has intensified lately as more and more bacteria — particularly those lurking in hospitals — become able to resist nearly every antibiotic in our arsenal.

"We throw thousands and thousands of antibiotics on bacteria," says Marcin Filutowicz, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "This is tremendous selection for antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

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The situation is forcing scientists to think creatively about where the next antibacterial medications will come from and how they will work. Here are five provocative ideas.

Viruses

Humans aren't the only ones who suffer infections. Bacteria, too, can get infected by viruses — and the enemies of our bacterial enemies are, naturally, our friends. These viruses, called bacteriophages or simply phages, are harmless to people but deadly to bacteria.

Scientists first discovered phages in 1917. But when scientists figured out how to make and use penicillin in 1941, Western doctors dropped phage treatments.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, phage therapies remained popular, says Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist who grew up in what is now the nation of Georgia.

"Almost everyone that I know in Georgia has taken phages at one time or another," Sulakvelidze says. He is the chief scientist at Intralytix Inc., a Baltimore-based company he founded to exploit phages for human benefit.

In recent years, Western scientists have rekindled their interest in phage treatments, and their experiments show the viruses cure bacterial infections in animals. In a 2009 study, published in the Journal of Wound Care, researchers at the Southwest Regional Wound Care Center in Lubbock, Texas, confirmed the safety of Intralytix's viruses on 42 people with chronic leg ulcers.

Since 2006, a few food processing companies have enlisted phages to prevent contamination in their facilities. Intralytix's ListShield infects and kills Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can cause deadly cases of food poisoning.
 
 

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