Superbugs are strains of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are resistant to most of the antibiotics and other medications commonly used to treat the infections they cause. 

How are Antibiotic-resistant superbugs treated?

The approach of using Bacteria-killing viruses to treat antibiotic-resistant superbugs has been tried in more than 100 people in Belgium since a 2019 change in regulations.

About Phage therapy

The use of bacteria-killing viruses known as phages to treat antibiotic-resistant infections is starting to take off in Belgium. 

Improvement in cases

More than 100 people have now been given phage therapies at the Queen Astrid Military Hospital .

Jean-Paul Pirnay at the Queen Astrid Military Hospital says his team plans to analyze all these cases and publish the results soon. 

“At first sight, I would say that there is a clinical improvement in about 70 percent of cases,” he says. “Mind you, most of these patients were desperate after antibiotics failed.”

About a treated case 

In a research paper published today, Pirnay and colleagues have described one of these cases in detail. 

Wounds got infected

In March 2016, a 30-year-old woman was severely injured in a suicide bombing at Brussels airport. Despite being given antibiotics, her wounds got infected, preventing them from healing.

Antibiotic side effects

After several months, intensive antibiotic treatments had caused serious side effects but failed to clear the infection. 

The culprit ‘Klebsiella pneumoniae’

The main culprit was a strain of a bacterium called Klebsiella pneumoniae that is resistant to almost all drugs.

Therapy to treat infection

One of the doctors, Anaïs Eskenazi, decided to try phage therapy and got special approval to try phage therapy. A sample of the bacterium was sent to the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, to find a phage that could kill it. The Eliava Institute has been using phage therapy to treat infections since the 1920s.

Infection got cured

By February 2018, the woman was still not improving, and she was finally treated with the phage in combination with antibiotics. Within weeks, her condition improved, and her broken femur finally began to heal. 

Safety and efficacy concerns

After finding such a phage, the institute evolved the virus to make it even better at killing the bacterium. 

But due to safety and efficacy concerns raised by some doctors, the therapy was put on hold.

Phage-antibiotic synergy

There are efforts to develop “off-the-shelf” phage therapies containing a cocktail of different phage types – the idea being at least one will work – but these would require continual tweaking to ensure they remain effective.

“When possible, doctors should prefer the use of pre-adapted phage with antibiotics to obtain the phage-antibiotic synergy, which makes the treatment very effective,” Eskenazi says.

Expanding framework

However, in 2019 the Federal Agency for Medicines and Health Products in Belgium introduced a system specifically designed for phage therapy, making it much easier for doctors to try it.

“We are trying to expand this framework to Europe,” says Pirnay.