Antibiotic resistance is a challenge that calls for good science as well as ingenuity. Although we will always need new antibiotics, there are alternative therapeutic approaches worth considering. One example is bacteriophage therapy. Bacteriophages—or phages—exist in abundance in nature, including in and on the human body. Phages are viruses that infect bacteria and use the bacterial cell’s genetic apparatus to produce more phages. In the process, they kill their host. By harnessing phages’ natural ability to destroy bacteria, infections can be cleared.

Work with phages dates back well before the identification of the first antibiotics, but we are only now beginning to appreciate the ways in which they may be used—in a time of increasing levels of bacterial resistance to antibiotics and uncertainty about the potential environmental impact of widespread use of disinfectants and antibiotics. Phages have shown promise as tools for infection control; they are useful for diagnosing bacterial infections and quickly determining antibiotic susceptibility.

This policy brief from RWJF grantee Extending the Cure examines phages; the advantages and disadvantages of phage therapy, other potential applications and the road ahead.