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UCLA researchers help develop phage therapy to treat antibiotic-resistant bacteria

By Leila Okahata

May 21, 2022 4:04 p.m.

Researchers have developed a nanoparticle-phage therapy to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to a study published March 3, infections have become increasingly difficult to treat due to the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Over 700,000 people die worldwide each year from multidrug-resistant organisms, with this number projected to rise to 10 million – surpassing the number of deaths from cancer – by 2050, according to the study.

As an alternative to antibiotics, researchers from UCLA, the University of Alberta, and Huazhong University of Science and Technology engineered phages – viruses that infect bacteria – to treat multidrug-resistant infections.

Irene Chen, the senior author of the study and an associate professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, said the researchers engineered E. coli phages to target and attach to the surface of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterium resistant to many antibiotics. They also combined the phages with gold nanorods that activate under near-infrared light to kill the bacteria, she said.

“Once they’re (the gold nanorods are) activated, they release heat, which is sufficient to basically cook the bacteria that’s around them,” she said. “They will kill them thermally.”

This heating process also kills the phages themselves to prevent potential negative consequences, such as the release of phage toxins that can harm the patient, said Huan Peng, the lead author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Life Science and Technology at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, in an emailed statement.

To test their efficacy, these phages were applied topically to the wounds of mice and were treated with a near-infrared laser for 15 minutes, according to the study. The phages were additionally decorated with zinc molecules to promote wound healing, Chen said.

In comparison to standard antibiotic therapy, the nanoparticle-phage therapy resulted in wounds that healed faster and had 10-fold reductions in bacterial load after two days relative to the control, according to the study. These results revealed that this phage therapy could serve as an effective technology against antibiotic-resistant bacteria and an alternative to antibiotics, Peng said in an emailed statement.

The researchers also found that the phage therapy was nontoxic, another advantage over antibiotics, which can be toxic to the kidneys and liver, Chen said.

Application of this therapy, however, is limited to wounds that are one to two centimeters deep in the skin and accessible to the near-infrared light used in the study, she said.

Chen added that phage therapy is currently only specific to some kinds of bacteria and will need to be broadened to include more clinically relevant pathogens.

“I think the greatest concern for me right now is how to ensure that for any given patient that comes in, we have a phage that will work,” she said.

Nevertheless, the researchers said they are optimistic about the prospects of this technology for tackling antibiotic-resistant infections. Peng said in an emailed statement that the therapy is currently in preclinical stages, and he hopes it can treat humans in the near future.

Sheref Mansy, a coauthor of the study and a chemistry professor at the University of Alberta, said he also hopes that the public health crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria gains more attention and media coverage.

“We’re running out of antibiotic options, but it’s something that the rest of the world never really seemed to take seriously, unfortunately,” he said. “We are faced with, as COVID has taught us, a variety of challenges that we will probably face more and more in the future.”

Chen said she hopes this technology will be added onto the list of medical techniques that physicians use when dealing with multidrug resistant infections.

“I’m hoping that list will have expanded within the next 50 years so that my kids and everybody who grows up now can have the same kind of infection-free life,” she said.

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Leila Okahata
Okahata is a News reporter on the science and health beat. She is a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student minoring in professional writing.
Okahata is a News reporter on the science and health beat. She is a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student minoring in professional writing.
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