Phage research report conclusions welcomed by Leicester experts

Professor Martha Clokie of the Centre for Phage Research.

University of Leicester experts in phages - viruses that specifically infect bacteria – have welcomed a report that concludes that the UK should invest more in research in this area to save lives.

Earlier this month, the UK Parliament Science, Innovation and Technology Committee published its report on the antimicrobial potential of bacteriophages. Scientists at Leicester’s Centre for Phage Research have described it as a ‘well-documented report of the evidence on the safety and efficacy of bacteriophages (phages) as a response to the AMR crisis’.

The Committee’s independent and systematic Inquiry shows how bacteriophages and derived products could be a response to the increasing numbers of patients dying from bacterial infections that can’t be treated and assesses the funding and structural challenges that surround the development of such new medicines.  

The University of Leicester Centre for Phage Research was established ‘to address pressing medical and agricultural needs to isolate, characterise, manipulate and deliver phages and phage-based products to prevent, diagnose and treat bacterial infection, through multidisciplinary research’. Professor Martha Clokie was invited to speak to the Committee in her role as Director of the Leicester Centre for Phage Research and is cited throughout the report. 

Professor Clokie said: “The report is a careful systematic review of the potential of phage biology and concludes that phages to treat bacterial infection have the potential to reduce antibiotic resistance. Major funding and structural changes are needed to push this personalised medicine forward.  Currently there is a lack of clinical trial data to show phage efficacy – this is due to the lack of fundamental science, a complex regulatory environment, and the ability to produce phages to the correct standard to conduct the clinical trials.  Resource to do the clinical trials will not be given until clinical trial evidence is produced, therefore we are in a perfect Catch-22 of the research being stalled.

“The Centre for Phage Research hopes to play a major role in providing critical expertise, a phage bank and a state-of-the-art bespoke laboratory in which to do the fundamental science to ensure the most optimal phages are developed.  By building on their preclinical data, experience of large-scale trials and their clinical links they are perfectly poised to lead much needed translational phage therapy projects.”

The Centre’s fundamental research programme is developing an in-depth understanding of the characteristics of phages. The Centre has a multidisciplinary team including bacteriologists, modellers, the only clinical academic in the UK with a sole research focus on phage therapy (Dr Mellisa Haines) and a public health consultant. The Centre is establishing a multidisciplinary collaborative platform to bring clinical and industrial partners together to design research projects within respiratory infections, TB and critical care. 

There are a number of recommendations from the report that the Centre for Phage Research are actively pursuing, including the availability of information and training in the clinical use of phages, closer work between researchers and regulators and policy-makers, and the development of infrastructure such as Phage Banks and GMP facilities.  

The University of Leicester Centre for Phage Research is currently formalising their phage bank which has over 2000 phages, in collaboration with other University partners in the UK namely Northumbria and Southampton, with the objective of providing a large catalogue of well curated and understood phages that can then be developed as safe and high-quality phages for human as well animal treatment and infection prevention.  

Dr Andy Millard, co-director of the LCPR said: “Having a well curated phage collection where we have well understood and curated phages – and where we match genomes to function - will help us develop phages that are fit for purpose.”

The recommendation to build a GMP facility that can be accessed and used by phage innovators, the NHS and those seeking to produce microbiome products, matches the approach taken by the Centre on the need for a UK production unit for phages in agriculture as well as human health. One Health is at the core of the centre for phage research development. 

Professor Clokie adds: “Clearly more resources are needed, and the Centre will lead bids to UKRI and elsewhere in order to be able to carry out essential work to underpin phage development and to carry out the translational parts of the work.  Traditionally the funding environment in this area is incredibly tough as phages are seen as being outdated, niche and less attractive than other treatment.  We hope this report will highlight to funders the need for ring-fenced funding.”