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For the first time, scientists have used genetically modified viruses to treat a patient fighting a life-threatening superbug infection. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the story.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway was born with a lung disease called cystic fibrosis. When she was 15, a nasty infection started spreading through her body after she got a double lung transplant in London. Nothing could help her - not antibiotics, nothing. Her mom, Joanne, says that doctors told her there was no hope.
JOANNE CARNELL-HOLDAWAY: We were devastated. To be told that, you know, we could well be burying our child was just - anyone that has a child never expects to have to bury them, you know, themselves.
STEIN: But then Isabelle's doctors decided to try something out-of-the-box. Viruses called phages - they're natural enemies of bacteria. So the doctors found Graham Hatfull. He's an expert on phages at the University of Pittsburgh.
GRAHAM HATFULL: Using genetic approaches with genome engineering, we're able to assemble this collection of three phages that we could then combine in a cocktail to use for treatment. They not only infect, but kill efficiently.
STEIN: People have been treated with phages before with mixed results. But no one had ever tried infusing genetically modified phages into someone's body.
HATFULL: It's kind of a scary thing to go in and administer a treatment like this, for which we're completely on new ground. We don't know what to expect.
STEIN: Isabelle's doctors started infusing about a billion phages into her body twice a day and held their breath.
HATFULL: There's lots of things to worry about. And so the very first thing was, you know, does something - does anything bad happen?
STEIN: But nothing did. In fact, Isabelle started to recover. She got stronger and stronger. And Isabelle, who's now 17, is living an almost completely normal life.
ISABELLE CARNELL-HOLDAWAY: I'm having driving lessons and doing my A levels at school. I'm making birthday cakes for people. I've been doing some gardening - all sorts of normal stuff.
STEIN: Now, doctors aren't sure exactly how the phages might have worked, and Isabelle isn't cured. She still needs to get phage infusions every day. But the infection appears, at least, to be under control.
I. CARNELL-HOLDAWAY: I think it's amazing. It kind of shows that there is completely no limit (laughter) to what they can come up with, really.
STEIN: Her mom agrees.
J. CARNELL-HOLDAWAY: For them to be able to just have a little fiddle around with these phages is mind-blowing, really, when you think about it.
STEIN: Steffanie Strathdee studies phages at the University of California San Diego.
STEFFANIE STRATHDEE: This is actually a historic moment. Phage therapy seems to be the most promising alternative to antibiotics that's on the scene. And this is the first time that a genetically engineered phage has been used to successfully treat a superbug infection in a human being.
STEIN: So Strathdee and Hatfull hope this is just the beginning.
HATFULL: What can we do, for example, to extend this to other types of diseases? The most obvious one is tuberculosis, which is caused by a related bacterium. And that causes a lot of disease and deaths across the world each year. And there's very prevalent drug-resistant strains that are very hard to treat.
STEIN: Now, this is just one case, and a lot more research is needed to see how well phages, including genetically engineered phages, really work and if they're safe. But with superbugs on the rise and antibiotics losing their power, researchers hope phages could help save more lives.
Rob Stein, NPR News.
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