What's Sewage Got To Do With It? How Bacteriophage Therapy Could Change Dentistry

Posted on: 4 March 2015


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around half of all American adults have periodontal (gum) disease. With nearly 65 million people suffering from the condition, scientific researchers continue to explore every opportunity to improve preventive treatment methods. Bacteriophage therapy is not an entirely new concept, but new research suggests that this method could help eradicate oral infections.

What is bacteriophage therapy?

Bacteriophages are viruses that you can use to attack and destroy unwanted bacteria, but phage therapy is not an entirely new concept. In 1915 and 1917, Frederick Twort and Felix d'Herelle discovered that certain viruses could help combat bacterial infections. While experts originally hailed the discovery as a breakthrough, the discovery of antibiotics in 1941 meant that most western scientists lost interest in phage therapy's potential.

As humans develop increased resistance to antibiotics, scientists have started to consider alternatives, and a renewed interest in phage therapy has emerged. Scientists now believe that these phages could offer a way to deal with the germs that can cause poisoning in raw food. Therapy could help doctors deal with serious infections, and there is new evidence that phages could help combat oral infections.

The link between sewage and oral disease

The latest research has discovered a new way that phage therapy could tackle oral infections using viruses from a rather unlikely source. Researchers in Jerusalem's Faculty of Dental Medicine discovered that they could kill harmful bacteria with a virus that they cultivated from the city's sewage.

The researchers wanted to find a way to deal with Enterococcus faecalis, a particularly nasty bacterium that lurks in the human digestive system. E. faecelis can cause endocarditis, meningitis and urinary tract infections. The bacterium can also cause an infection after root canal treatment, which is often difficult to get rid of. Doctors estimate that this bacterium is present in 20-33 percent of root canals.

Researchers isolated a phage virus called EFDG1 from the sewage. Even though E. faecelis can withstand the most powerful antibiotics, EFDG1 was able to kill the germ in its most resistant form. Following the research, doctors now believe that this type of phage therapy could eradicate harmful root canal infections that become resistant to antibiotics.

Why phage therapy is so effective

Phage therapy offers several benefits over antibiotics and other types of treatment. The therapy is effective because:

  • Phage viruses target specific bacteria and will not attack other cells.
  • Patients seldom experience any side effects or allergic reactions.
  • A phage system is generally cheaper to develop than a new antibiotic.

Phages can also mutate faster than bacteria, allowing them to respond quickly to a bacterium that is phage-resistant. A phage can outnumber bacteria 10:1, overpowering the germs and stopping them causing further infection.

What to expect from phage therapy

Phage therapy is easy to administer and could appeal greatly to dental patients. Drug manufacturers can normally freeze-dry phages to create pills that patients can quickly and easily take with water. What's more, these drugs can last a relatively long time when stored at the right temperature.

Alternatively, dentists could administer phage therapy in a liquid form. In most cases, your dentist would recommend that you take the drug with an antacid, as this makes it easier for the phage to survive on its way to your stomach. You can even apply phages topically, using treated gauze that you apply directly to the treatment area.

Obstacles to consider

For more info on the most effective outcomes, the medical industry would need to host large phage banks, as doctors and dentists would often have to use a mixture of viruses. This type of storage could prove costly to look after.

Researchers have yet to discover an effective phage therapy for certain bacteria, which means that antibiotics remain the only way to deal with some infections. That aside, research is underway to find new, more effective phages. Nonetheless, perhaps the biggest barrier to success is patient perception. Many dental patients would react negatively to the idea that a dentist is about to administer a virus, regardless of the proposed benefits.

Researchers continue to find surprising new sources of phages to treat bacterial infections. Several obstacles stand in the way of large-scale use of phages to treat oral infections, but this type of therapy offers a fascinating alternative to conventional antibiotics.