Researchers work to make phage therapy less of a long shot

Eric Boodman in Stat:

MalloryCroppedThe researcher couldn’t get Mallory Smith’s story out of her mind. Smith was a 25-year-old cystic fibrosis patient, and she was near death at a Pittsburgh hospital, her lungs overwhelmed by bacteria. All antibiotics had failed. As a last resort, her father suggested an experimental treatment known as phage therapy.

That meant giving her viruses known as bacteriophages — phages for short — which naturally parasitize bacteria. But not any phage would do. Smith needed one perfectly evolved to kill the microbes in her lungs. Urgent messages were beamed around the world, over email and Twitter, from one phage researcher to another. Was there someone, somewhere, who had the right virus tucked away in a fridge at the back of a lab?

That’s how Jessica Sacher heard about Smith. As a grad student experimenting on phages at the University of Georgia, she’d stumbled across a STAT article about the desperate virus hunt. She mentioned it to a friend she’d met through swing dancing, a tech consultant and developer named Jan Zheng. He knew there had to be a more efficient way to find the right virus when a patient’s life depended on it. “Using Twitter for this kind of stuff is ridiculous,” said Zheng. “It won’t scale to more than one or two patients.”

Over breakfast on Nov. 13, the two hatched a plan to create a Phage Directory to accelerate the search for a perfect match. That same day, scientists found a phage that could kill Smith’s bacteria, but she died two days later at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The website was launched just two days after that.

More here.