For the last twenty years, Martha Clokie, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Leicester, has pioneered research on bacteriophage therapy.
This is a revolutionary approach to treating bacterial infection without antibiotics — with the potential to transform patient care across the globe.
Bacteriophages are naturally occurring viruses which can destroy specific strains of bacteria. The majority of us would assume a virus is something that can harm us, such as coronavirus or ebola – however these trillions of viruses, derived from places like our oceans, mud or even excrement, attack strains of bacteria that harm us.
A true Citizen of Change, Professor Clokie’s ground-breaking work has led to the discovery of bacteriophages that destroy antibiotic resistant strains of some of the most resilient superbugs in existence, such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff) – deadly bacteria commonly found in hospitals that infect the bowel and cause life threatening illness.
The antidote to these ‘superbug strains’ were the phages that Professor Clokie dug out from soil within salt marsh estuaries in Hampshire, which are able to destroy the most serious strains of C. diff.
Exploring the use of bacteriophages to tackle antibiotic resistance
This remarkable discovery opens up huge potential for preventative or treatment work with patients in hospitals. Patients could be offered a cocktail of phage viruses in pill or drink form, which would then destroy C. diff in the gut preventing infection.
“Every bacteria has sets of viruses that can eradicate them, and these viruses are all around us. It is just a question of finding the ‘right’ ones with the properties we need. Phages are the most abundant biological entity on earth, with 1031 in total - it is extraordinary to think that just even 1ml of sea water contains up to a million of these viruses,” explains Professor Clokie.
Phages work by injecting their own DNA into bacteria, then turning them into ‘phage factories’ as they reproduce within the bacteria. Once the virus has killed the bacteria and made lots more bacteriophages, the bacteria is opened up to release the new phages, which in turn find new bacteria to kill.
Surprisingly for a microbiologist, Professor Clokie’s career started off in botany and genetics. As a child, Professor Clokie spent a lot of time collecting seaweed on Scottish beaches and whilst growing up, she was surrounded by a family of botanists and so a degree in botany and genetics was a natural step for her.
Her interest in bacteriophages was piqued whilst studying variations of blue green algae, particularly how the presence of naturally occurring viruses affected the bacteria present in the water. She joined the University of Leicester in 2007 as a lecturer in the Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, and was made a Professor in 2016.
Over the duration of her life’s work, Professor Clokie has collected over 500 such phages stored within her patented cryogenic ‘phage library’ – one of the largest and best characterised in Europe.
As concerns mount about the impending crisis in antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a new approach towards targeting superbugs has never been more urgently needed.
Although the use of antibiotics has formed the bedrock of modern science for almost a century, their overuse has created a prevalence of superbugs like MRSA and C. diff, resulting in a global emergency. It is predicted that if AMR is not treated by 2050, up to ten million lives could be at risk every year.