Focus at Four: The future of fighting the superbug

At least 2 million Americans a year are diagnosed with an infection that does not respond to traditional antibiotics, and many of those people die from their infections.

(Image Source: MGN)

These infections, resistant to antibiotics, are called "superbugs."

"It's a really big problem, and it's getting much worse," said Ry Young, bacteriophage researcher and director of the Center for Phage Technology at Texas A&M University. "And it's getting worse much faster than we thought it would."

Young says more than 25,000 Americans died last year from infections that would have been beatable with antibiotics 15 years ago.

But now, the bacteria behind those infections have adapted, Young says, mostly due to over-prescription of antibiotics--which now renders many antibiotics useless.

"We're down to one antibiotic for a number of the most important infections," Young said.

That's why Young and his team at the CPT are working to find a solution. Rather, they're working to make the solution they've found more accessible.

The answer, says Young, was actually discovered in 1917.

"A hundred years ago, they were discovered in France, and they were used worldwide for 15 or 20 before antibiotics came along," said Young.

Young's talking about bacteriophages, or viruses that can be used to attack and overcome superbugs.

"Just like all viruses, they absorb to the bacterial cell and then infect them and destroy them and release more progeny viruses," Young said. He says in the past couple of years, these bacteriophages have been successful about half the time, in cases in which the patient had no other options left.

Young says, it's a well-understood and basic science; that's not the problem.

"The difficulty is getting these old viruses packaged in a form that can be approved by modern medicine," said Young.

Young and his team are addressing that issue. Young says physicians have been given "carte blanche" to use phages when necessary available, so the CPT's goal is to make phages very available.

For the full conversation with Young, see the video player above. For more on the CPT, see the Related Links.