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CRISPR-Modified Viruses Could Be Next Potent Weapon Against Drug-Resistant Bacteria

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A company called Locus Biosciences claims that it has genetically modified viruses to act as "living antibiotic" and kill superbugs.

The approach involves phages, the natural enemies of bacteria. If successful, the new type of treatment can be the world's first line of defense against strains of bacteria that have evolved resistance to most antibiotics available in the market today.

"This can be the game changer that takes us out of this arms race with the resistant bacteria and allows us to use a totally different mechanism to fight the pathogenic bacteria that are infecting us," stated Michael Priebe, a doctor who heads the spinal cord injury service at the VA Medical Center in Georgia.

A New Weapon Against Superbugs

In a story recently published by NPR, scientists from Locus Biosciences revealed that they have created a mix of three phages that have been genetically-modified using CRISPR. Paul Garofolo, CEO of the company, explained that the phages infect harmful bacteria.

"What we've learned how to do is reprogram that immune system to attack itself," he said. "We load the viruses up with CRISPR constructs, which essentially work like little Pac-Men. They go into a target bacteria cell, and they chew up the DNA of that target. It makes them much more potent killers."

Locus Biosciences is only one of the companies currently looking at CRISPR to develop new treatments against health problems humanity is facing today, including superbugs. There have been other efforts to genetically-modify phages to attack harmful bacteria, but a challenge that has risen is to make the virus ignore the good bacteria.

Even antibiotics that are currently in use do not discriminate; it kills even the good bacteria that aids in a healthy gut. Scientists agree that the strategy is promising, but more research before it becomes a reality.

Graham Hatfull, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, commented that there have not been enough efforts to understand phages. He is concerned that the effort could end up converting harmless bacteria into dangerous ones.

Living Antibiotics To Go On Trial

Priebe, however, assured that the new antibiotic would go through rigorous testing before it goes to market. Later this year, he and his colleagues will test genetically modified phages into 30 patients.

The trial will see how it will affect the levels of E. coli bacteria in the urinary tracts of volunteers. If proven safe, the company plans to move on to testing how effective it will be in fighting infections.

Superbugs: A Threat To Public Health

In 2018, the World Health Organization declared antibiotics resistance as a global threat to public health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people in the United States get antibiotic-resistant infection and about 2,000 die from it.

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