It was the early 1890s, and Ernest Hankin was studying cholera outbreaks along the banks of the Ganges. As the locals dumped their dead in the holy water, the river should have quickly transformed into a poisonous spring of the disease, with an epidemic sweeping through towns and villages down the valley.
He had seen this across Europe as water supplies became infected with the bacteria, yet here, on the banks of the Ganges, the disease remained relatively tame; the new outbreaks simmered and then died out rather than spreading like wildfire.
Hankin concluded that something mysterious within the water was killing the germs before they could wreak havoc, but it took another 20 years for a French scientist to suggest that their guardian angel was a type of virus known as a bacteriophage. Harmless to humans but deadly to the cholera bacteria, the virus appeared to be purifying the water before it could infect the local bathers.
Long ignored by scientists, it is now thought that these “ninja viruses” may one day save millions of lives, far beyond the banks of the Ganges, as they offer us a new arsenal of weapons against deadly disease...
Unfortunately, this research was not published in English-language medical journals, and remained hidden from many scientists in the West – a challenge that Hendrickson hopes to overcome with new collaborations. Just this week, a doctor using phage therapy recently got in touch with her after she took part in our Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) discussion in the run up to the WCIS event in Sydney. “It’s a really exciting opportunity to meet these people and hear what they know,” she adds.
In the West, one of the first big clinical trials will test bandages infused with bacteriophages, to see whether it could prevent infection in burn victims. And Hendrickson points to some promising individual success stories. At WCIS, Hendrickson described the case of Alfred Gertler, who suffered a nasty climbing accident that “pulverised his ankle”. He developed an infection that would not respond to antibiotics, and initially it looked like the only option was amputation. After a 10-day course of phage therapy, however, he made a complete recovery.
“It is a really potent tool,” says Hendrickson. “And we have barely scratched the diversity of this group of organisms.”