Seeking an alternative

As a nation of pill poppers, we have become increasingly reliant on a range of prescription and over-the-counter drugs to cure our ills. Whether it is a cough or a cold or a bug that is doing the rounds, we tend to reach for the tablets to alleviate the pain without really thinking about the consequences.

Antibiotics are among the drugs that are prescribed to patients for relatively minor ailments, such as throat infections. But they are also used for more serious illnesses and treatment, such as following an organ transplant or cancer chemotherapy, when a patient really needs help to fight infections. Increasing evidence of resistance to certain antibiotics has led medical experts to warn against prescribing them for minor illnesses – as they may not work effectively at a later more critical stage in a person’s life.

Ground-breaking research

New ground-breaking research at the University of Wolverhampton is seeking to find an alternative to these overused drugs. Dr Martin Khechara is a Lecturer in Microbiology at the School of Applied Sciences and his research group is looking into ‘phages’, which are viruses that ‘eat’ bacteria. These viruses were discovered 90 years ago, but their use petered out when the drug penicillin became widely available in the 1940s. Now with evidence that bacteria that infect people are becoming resistant to antibiotics, phages are once again being investigated as a possible therapy against drug resistant strains of many bacteria.

Dr Khechara explains that phages control the number of bacteria present by acting as its predator. He says: “Everything has its parasite and even something as small as a bacteria has a parasite that will hunt it down and kill it. These phages are their predator and control the number of bacteria in nature. “The world relies on them – and we can also use them artificially for medicine. 20 years after penicillin was introduced, 100% of some bacteria were resistant to it and new antibiotics are not really being discovered today.”

Using the power

Martin and the Bacteriaphage Therapeutics Research Group are using water from a variety of sources, including local rivers and the Welsh coast, to carry out their studies. Instead of creating tablets to replace antibiotics, they are looking to develop alternative cleansing products that can kill bacteria before it even reaches a patient. These could be used in hospitals, and could have a major impact on superbugs such as MRSA, which are resistant to antibiotic treatment.

“We can use that power – that natural way of predating bacteria to help combat infection. We are trying to break the cycle of transmission as 80% of disease is transmitted by touch, even the common cold,” Dr Khechara explains.

“We are aiming towards healthcare environments such as intensive care units, cancer therapy, treatment of AIDS and burns units. Instead of a tablet you can take, we are trying to make things using the viruses. Some of the ideas for products that can target particular bacteria, such as MRSA, are going to go towards a patent so we can’t say too much about them, but they are certainly exciting innovations.”

Valuable experience

The research group consists of Dr Khechara, two part-time research assistants and people on work experience who are either graduates or postgraduates. The group provides valuable training for students during the summer break between academic years, and they will take on small parts of the technical support. Martin explains that this teaches the students the simple techniques that a microbiologist needs in their work.

But an added bonus, and a surprisingly fact, is that while the research is valuable and important, it is also inexpensive.

“We are really proud that we are doing good work that is at the same level of other international groups, without throwing money at it. We are collaborating with people in the West Midlands, as well as working with volunteers, interested people and our excellent Microbiology technicians here at the University, without a huge budget.”

An endless supply

There are hundreds of different strains of phages which attack all kinds of bacteria. Dr Khechara explains it will take years to exhaust the research possibilities, so the team have plenty to keep them busy.

“We will never run out of phages to kill bacteria – it is a bottomless source of therapeutics.

“There is good science going on in Wolverhampton. It is on a par with research all around the world into this kind of therapy. This is ground-breaking – we are finding organisms that are new to science every day.”