Researchers in the United Kingdom have isolated a jumbo phage from wastewater with the potential to fight lung infections caused by Burkholderia cenocepacia.

RT’s Three Key Takeaways: 

  1. The newly discovered jumbo phage can specifically target and kill Burkholderia cenocepacia, a bacterium that causes serious lung infections, particularly in people with cystic fibrosis.
  2. This jumbo phage, identified from wastewater, has a genome more than double the size of an average phage, containing many genes of unknown function.
  3. The research represents a step in exploring phage therapy as an alternative to traditional antibiotics, especially for infections that have become resistant to conventional treatments.

Researchers have discovered a new bacterial killer—a jumbo phage—that can target common lung infections caused by Burkholderia bacteria and has the potential for biotechnological applications.

The Burkholderia cepacia complex is a group of bacteria that can cause lung infections, which can be fatal for those with serious lung diseases, particularly cystic fibrosis. Infections caused by Burkholderia cenocepacia are difficult to treat, as they can evade antibiotics by pumping them back out of the bacterial cell or by hiding inside human cells.

Scientists from the Sagona lab at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, were interested in finding a way to target these evasive bacteria. One method that researchers are looking into more widely is the use of bacteriophages (phages). Phages are naturally occurring viruses that can infect and kill bacteria. There are more phages in the world than bacteria, animals, and humans combined, but they are not yet widely used as clinical treatments in the United Kingdom other than as a last resort.

Wastewater: A Rich Source of Phages

Researchers began by considering where to look for phage that can target and kill B. cenocepacia in the hopes of providing alternative therapeutics for those suffering from infection. Wastewater, particularly from hospitals, is a great source of phages that can target specific bacteria. If Burkholderia are present in wastewater, due to the input of bacteria from humans, phages that can infect and kill these bacteria will also be present and can be isolated by scientists.

Dr Jessica Lewis, who conducted the study, began by taking samples of wastewater from a sewage treatment works outside of Coventry, United Kingdom, and isolated a phage specific to B. cenocepacia. Not only did the phage kill B. cenocepacia when tested, but the analysis also revealed that the phage is what is known as a jumbo phage. A jumbo phage has a genome which is more than double the size of an average phage. It’s rare—only a few hundred jumbo phages have been discovered since the first was isolated in 1978.

The Potential of Jumbo Phages

Discovery of a jumbo phage is particularly exciting due to the potential of the unknown elements of its genome. More than 400 genes (around 85% of the total genes) in the new phage have unknown functions. Lewis and her colleagues are now sequencing the DNA of their jumbo phage in an effort to identify potential genes with powerful new functions.

According to Lewis, this is just the beginning. “Phage therapy with regular phage is step A, but if we do not want a repeat of resistance and similar problems that we face with antibiotics, we will need to optimize them,” Lewis says in a release. 

Lewis and her team hope that by sequencing the jumbo phage genome they can find DNA that can be engineered to contain further biological weaponry, increasing the phage’s arsenal of tools to target and kill B. cenocepacia.

Navigating Policy Limitations

While there is a lot more research needed to work toward human and clinical applications of phages, researchers are also limited by United Kingdom policy. Lewis says in a release, “Currently in the UK, we cannot make our own phage therapeutics. We would have to isolate the phages here and send these off to certified phage companies either in mainland Europe or America so that they can generate purified phage cocktails (which are approved for phage therapy and can be applied to patients) and send those back to us.”

Despite these limitations, Lewis and her team are continuing to pursue the use of phage to target B. cenocepacia and hope that their work will contribute to the wealth of phage research that will one day be used to treat patients.  

Lewis will present the data at this year’s Microbiology Society Annual Conference on April 8 at the Edinburgh International Convention Centre.

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