Synthetic biology: Strange medicine
SET a thief to catch a thief is an old proverb. In the 1920s, shortly after the discovery of viruses, it was put to good use by doctors. They found they could treat certain infections with bacteriophages—viruses that attack bacterial cells but not mammalian ones.
Phage therapy, as this practice is known, fell out of favour in the West after the development of antibiotics, although it continued in parts of the old Soviet sphere of influence. (These days, research is still carried out in Georgia and Poland). But antibiotics are faltering as resistant strains of germ evolve. Some Western researchers are therefore looking afresh at phages, hoping, with modern methods, to turn them into tailored treatments for infection.
One such group of scientists works at Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, California. This firm, the creation of Craig Venter, an entrepreneurial geneticist who once took on the American and British research establishments in a race to sequence the human genome, plans to re-engineer several sorts of organism—phages included—into what it hopes will be useful products.
The phage work is run by Sammy Farah, head of the firm’s vaccines and therapeutics unit. His team is developing phages for use against antibiotic-resistant strains of Pseudomonas, a bug that causes skin infections, sepsis and—particularly in those with cystic fibrosis—potentially fatal pneumonia. Phage therapies in Georgia and Poland mix dozens of strains of wild phage together into a cocktail, in the hope that one will do the trick against the bug that a patient is infected with. Dr Farah and his colleagues, by contrast, are able to synthesise viruses from scratch, using off-the-shelf chemicals. They can thus design them precisely, down to the last atom.
The plan is to come up with one or two super-phages that will hit multiple strains of Pseudomonas. In effect, these phages will be giant self-replicating drug molecules that automatically calibrate the size of their dose—for, when all of the target bacteria have been killed, they can no longer breed. The benefit, from the patient’s point of view, is help for an infection that is currently untreatable except, perhaps, by getting on a plane to Warsaw or Tbilisi. From the firm’s point of view, an equally important benefit is that synthetic viruses can be patented. Wild ones cannot.
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