University launches pioneering new centre to study bacteriophages to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria

Professor Martha Clokie

A pioneering new centre to study bacteriophages to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria has officially launched at The University of Leicester. 

The Centre for Phage Research is the first of its kind to exist in the UK and will look at alternatives to antibiotics - specifically the potential use of phages to fight bacterial infections.

Phages are viruses that infect bacteria and kill them.

It follows warnings from the World Health Organisation that antibiotics are becoming less effective at treating bacterial infection.

In 2019 there were 4.95 million deaths across the world that were associated with antibiotic resistant bacteria, with the problem predicted to increase in the coming decades.

Professor of Microbiology Martha Clokie is leading the new centre and has already raised the issue with MPs following an invitation to speak to the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons, earlier this year. 

She said: “The use of phages offer a promising alternative to antibiotics but more work is required to develop the technology to use the best phages and translate them into effective products.

“This centre will carry out multidisciplinary research to help us understand and deliver phage-based products to prevent and treat bacterial infections in humans, animals and in other parts of agriculture. 

“Seventy per cent of our antibiotics are currently used to treat animals. This generates antimicrobial resistant infection that is passed onto our food chain, adding to overall resistance. 

“If we can determine where the use of phages is most effective, we may be able to extend the life of antibiotics and in some cases slow down or reverse resistance as well as being able to treat people in the near future who currently can’t be treated by doctors. That’s why the work of the centre is vital.” 

The centre is also developing the first UK BioBank – a repository of phage and host bacterial isolates to allow researchers from home and abroad to develop their understanding and assist in identifying the most effective phages for future treatments.

Professor Clokie said: “We hope the BioBank will fast-track phage use in the NHS, enabling clinical trials to take place so they can be more widely used.”

Although one type of antibiotic can kill a variety of bacteria, phages can only infect a narrow range, often just one type or even a subset of types. This makes prescribing the right phages for a specific infection more difficult than prescribing an antibiotic.

However, the specificity and complexity of phages means that they could be incredibly useful when it comes to fighting ever-evolving microorganisms that make us sick, as phages can remove the undesirable bacteria and look after the rest of the helpful bacteria. 

Phages are naturally occurring in the environment around us and can be found where high numbers of bacteria lurk. 

Researchers will also look at how multiple phages interact with one another.

Currently phages have only been used in the UK as treatment options in a small number of cases including patients in Dundee who have very advanced diabetic foot infections. However, with further development they could be used to treat a range of bacterial infections including Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs), skin, intestinal and respiratory infections.

One patient who could benefit is Leah Herridge who has suffered from a chronic UTI infection for the past four years and is currently undergoing antibiotic treatment with the NHS Whittington Hospital in London. 

The 36-year-old’s debilitating condition can leave her bedbound and means she feels the need to urinate frequently and has pain in her pelvic area, lower back and inner thighs. 

She says the work of the new centre has given her renewed hope.

“The treatment I’m receiving has helped to relieve some of my pain but unfortunately it has not eliminated it,” she said. 

“I take multiple full dose antibiotics and this has side effects. At one point they began killing off the good bacteria in my gut and therefore my dose had to be lowered. I’ve had to take long periods of time off work and been hospitalised. I have to live with my condition every day – it never goes away.”

Leah has already looked into the treatment of phages in Georgia but says this is too costly for her currently.

She added: “The centre in Leicester offers me real hope that I can find a cure for my chronic condition and finally have some quality of life.”

The centre has been up and running since September last year but was officially opened today (16 May) at a special event jointly hosted by the Phage Innovation Network - recently set up by Innovate UK KTN to enhance UK phage translation. 

Professor Clokie added: “There are barriers to using phages currently. Antibiotics are far easier to make, store and prescribe but this work will help us overcome those barriers and is essential in our fight against antibiotic resistance and preventable deaths. 

“I’m hugely excited about the work of the centre and what it could mean for the future.”