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Phage therapy

Antibiotics have been so overused, not only in medicine but also to promote the growth of farm animals, that many bacterial diseases are becoming resistant to them. The fear is that we may be thrown back to the period before antibiotics, when diseases we now think minor were killers. One suggestion for a new way of attacking resistant bacteria has recently been reported to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It comes from a group in Tbilisi in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, who have been researching viruses that kill bacteria. Such a virus is called a bacteriophage, usually shortened to phage. The full term comes from bacterium, plus the Greek phagein, to eat. So a phage is an eater, and phage therapy puts phage viruses to work inside the body to destroy the disease-causing bacteria. Because any given phage only attacks a single bacterium, and has no effect on human cells, it promises to be a highly targeted therapy. It’s likely to be a slow-acting cure, and we’ve a long way to go before it becomes common, if it ever does. However, it has recently been reported that a Canadian woman has been cured of a antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection by a form of phage therapy.

Phage therapy isn’t the only alternative to antibiotics, but it has great promise.

Independent on Sunday, Sep. 1999

Scientists say the success of “phage therapy” ... could represent an important step in the war against multi-resistant bacteria.

Daily Telegraph, Sep. 1999

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 2 Oct. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 2 October 1999.