People sick with a bacterial infection that resists antibiotic treatment might be able to fight off their illness in a different way.
It involves infecting people with a virus that will in turn target bacteria, according to a study published in the journal Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health.
While that might seem counterintuitive, scientists say the method could help save lives while keeping antibiotics effective.
The study is based off the case of a 76-year-old man who underwent surgery for his aortic arch, a part of the main artery around the heart. His initial surgery was a success, the study says, but the Connecticut man then developed a bacterial infection that wouldn’t go away when doctors treated it with antibiotics.
A virus that researchers fished out of a pond proved to do the trick.
Certain viruses called “bacteriophages” are known to specifically infect and kill just bacteria, according to Ars Technica. Evolutionary biologist Paul Turner, one of the study’s authors, had collected different types of this virus, including one called OMKO1 that researchers found at Dodge Pond in Niantic, Connecticut.
That OMKO1 was used to treat the 76-year-old’s Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterial infection, the study says. Researchers first tested out the bacteriophage on discharge from the man’s chest and found that it wiped out most of the infection.
But that’s not all it did. The study found that when introduced to OMKO1, bacteria that survived became more susceptible to antibiotic treatment in the future. That suggests the virus could actually reset the resistance that some strains of bacteria have gained.
Doctors then injected the virus directly into the infected portion of the man’s chest, the study says, and his bacterial infection cleared up after another round of antibiotics.
Ben Chan, the research scientist at Yale’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, advocated for using the viral therapy to fight off the stubborn Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection, according to Mashable.
He told the outlet that the study he co-authored offers a potential solution to the growing number of diseases that can withstand even the strongest dose of antibiotics.
“Antibiotic resistance is becoming a more serious problem now,” he said, “so phages are a good alternative.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 million people each year are infected with an antibiotic-resistant disease — and 23,000 die from it. That problem is set to worsen, the CDC estimates, if nothing is done to curb it.
“Since the 1940s, these drugs have greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases,” reads the CDC website. “However, these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective.”
One woman in Nevada died in September 2016 from an infection that was resistant to 26 different antibiotics. Dr. Alexander Kallen, a medical officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s division of health care quality promotion, told Stat News why that’s incredibly frightening.
“It was tested against everything that’s available in the United States,” he said, “and was not effective.”
Drug-resistant bacteria cause higher medical costs, more deaths and more time stuck in the hospital, the World Health Organization says. The problem of antibiotic resistance happens naturally, according to WHO, but is worsened by overuse in humans and animals.