In the 19th-century before there were antibiotics, infections were treated with viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Now, researchers have found a new role for these bacteria eaters: preventing infections on medical implants.
Sticky "biofilms" of bacteria form on devices like catheters, pacemakers, and stents. The worst part is, these are often antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which afflicts more than a million patients a year in the U.S. and increase hospital bills by nearly $1 billion.
So a team led by Marek Urban of Clemson University devised a new method to attach viruses called bacteriophages -- literally, “bacteria eaters” -- onto almost any surface, including plastic and Teflon-type materials.
A layer of these viral hitmen, Technology Review describes, might prevent bacterial infections:
When a bacterium gets too close to these enemy-coated surfaces, a tethered bacteriophage can grab on and inject its genetic material into the bacterial cell where it is copied and turned into many more bacteriophage. Eventually, these virus copies burst open the bacteria, killing it. Each newly freed bacteriophage can then go on to infect more bacteria.
The phages have already been used to kill Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus, which cause the most common hospital-acquired infections.
The work was published recently in Biomacromolecules.
Image from H.A. Pearson et al., American Chemical Society