Three years after Texas A&M researchers saved a person’s life with a special type of virus known as a “phage” that destroys harmful bacteria, faculty and students hope to expand on their success, ultimately bringing the helpful virus to the mainstream clinical sphere.

In 2010, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents established the Center for Phage Technology [CPT]. According to Texas A&M, a 2014 study performed by the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance predicts that by 2050, antibiotic-resistant bacteria will have killed 10 million people, making “superbugs” more lethal than cancer. As the number of effective antibiotic treatments has decreased over the years, bacteria has continue to evolve, and researchers are investing in phages as a new potential treatment option against superbugs.

In 2016, Tom Patterson, a professor from the University of California-San Diego, contracted a bacterial infection while on vacation overseas. According to Texas A&M, the infection resisted every attack doctors waged against it. It seemed he would die of organ failure if drastic action was not taken.

Patterson’s wife, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UC-San Diego, reached out to Texas A&M’s Center for Phage Technology via founding member Ry Young in search of an answer. At the time, the center’s research on phages had mainly applied to animals and plants and had never been used to treat a human.

Young and other Texas A&M researchers were able to collect a phage specific to Patterson’s infection type, and that same year Patterson was treated with the virus, bringing him from a comatose state to what is considered a full recovery. After seeing Texas A&M’s success with Patterson, UC-San Diego developed a similar research center, known as IPATH.

Mei Liu, program director with Texas A&M’s CPT, said although her center has not formed any formal relationships with other universities, she hopes that A&M and UC-San Diego can collaborate research efforts some day. She noted that Aggie researchers need to continue building their “library” of phage samples, as treatment is very specific and is considered personalized medicine. It can take a lot of work to find the right cocktail of phages to treat a bacterial infection.

“There are no perspective suppliers of phages,” she said. “Big companies are not interested in this kind of funding, and we have to rely on government and university support.”

Liu’s husband, Jason J. Gill, CPT founding member and lab supervisor during the Patterson case, noted that the emergency viral treatment given to Patterson was implemented only on a trial basis via an Emergency Investigational New Drug [EIND] application. Though the phage was prepared via CPT, it was administered to Patterson through an outside clinic for little to no cost to him because of its experimental nature. Texas A&M faculty and students who cultivated the phage cocktail for the patient performed a pro-bono act worth approximately $50,000.

“We can’t do that all the time,” Gill said. “We’d go bankrupt.”

The CPT continues to perform research for agricultural purposes and for potential use in humans. Some of the center’s work is funded by grants or through entities such as the Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension, but to move forward with helping additional people, the center would need more consistent funding.

Gill also explained that the concept of phages isn’t new. Phages were used to treat patients almost 100 years ago in the United States but fell out of use when antibiotics were developed for common practice. Antibiotics are easier to produce on a wide scale, he said, and with phages it can be challenging to rapidly match an infected person to their specific needed helpful virus.

“We can’t do that with a university laboratory,” he said. “You would need a company to do that, to create a business model.”

Texas A&M’s CPT is considered the largest phage research collaboration in the United States, and the university provides undergraduate and graduate education in bacteriophage genomics. Its faculty of at least eight people, accompanied by central staff members, are working on new projects targeting specific strains of bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. To learn more, visit cpt.tamu.edu.

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