Science Update

New study demonstrates the effects of bacteriophage supplementation on the gut microbiome

Bacteriophages, commonly referred to as "phages," are natural viruses that infect and replicate in bacteria. Since they evolve with bacteria, they are optimized to kill them. Bacteria evolve to resist phages, but phages evolve, too, at an exponential rate that chemists dabbling with new generations of antibiotics can never hope to replicate. That makes phages the ultimate antibacterial therapy (lethal, adaptive, safe, and efficient) with billions of years of experience. Bacteriophages are the most common life form on earth and outnumber bacteria 10 to one. They have been referred to as “Mother Nature’s little helper.”

In a study published four weeks ago in Nutrients, researchers demonstrated the potential benefits of oral supplementation with bacteriophages. This was a double-blinded, placebo-controlled crossover study in which 43 adults ranging from 18 to 65 years of age supplemented with bacteriophages for a 28 day period. Laboratory assessment included stool and blood samples to examine inflammatory markers, lipid metabolism, and the gut microbiome.

Results of the study showed a decrease in E. coli in those that supplemented with the bacteriophages. However, the bacteriophages did not globally disrupt the microbiota. Only specific bacteria populations were altered in response to supplementation, including increases in butyrate-producing bacteria and decreases in Clostridium. In addition, there was a significant decrease in circulating interleukin-4 (Il-4). These results demonstrate the potential of bacteriophages to selectively reduce target organisms without global disruption of the gut microbiome.

Bacteriophages are natural enemies of bacteria; they can be used for both prophylactic and therapeutic applications against bacterial infections.  Although phages are not very well known, they are one of the most abundant naturally occurring organisms on Earth. They can be found everywhere, from the soil to drinking water. They only prey on bacteria, never human cells, and the bacteria have a difficult time becoming resistant to them.  Phages are great because they are species specific, meaning different strains attack different bacteria. For example, certain phages are specific to these E. coli strains. This makes them harmless to human cells and even to non-targeted bacteria. This is much different than antibiotics, which can wipe out all the beneficial bacteria of the gastrointestinal tract along with the harmful bacteria.

Bacteriophages’ fermentation does not cause flatulence or produce discomfort. They are effective in small doses, efficacious within hours, and are active in the small and large intestine. Phages are common components in foods and work great with a broad spectrum of probiotics. They can be used to support overall gastrointestinal health and are helpful for both prophylactic and therapeutic applications against bacterial infections.

The growing levels of antibiotic resistance along with the exit of major pharmaceutical companies from antibiotic development makes phage therapy a valuable treatment of choice for the growing number of infections we see today. Phage therapy has an 80 to 90 percent success rate against bacteria likely to show antibiotic resistance, such E. coli. In contrast, many antibiotics fail against evolved forms of these pathogens. Thus, probiotics and bacteriophages that support an optimal microbial balance and more rapidly decrease E. coli can decrease the burden of intestinal infections and facilitate quicker recoveries.

Source: Hallie F, Sangeeta R, et al. PHAGE Study: Effects of Supplemental Bacteriophage Intake in Inflammation and Gut Microbiota in Healthy Adults. Nutrients. 2019 March 20; 11(3).