By Samwel Doe Ouma            

Kenyan research scientists are exploring use of bacteriophages-naturally occurring and abundant viruses that target bacteria- as an alternative and or compliment to use of antibiotics in the treatment of bacterial infections in human, agriculture, livestock and food production.

According to Dr Peter Mwethera, Director Institute of Primate Research (IPR), phages are viruses that feed on bacterial and are naturally found in the environment and in the human body as well. They offer a complimentary solution to tackling the rising antibiotic resistant bacteria because they are harmless to people.

“We are discussing how we can embrace phage research locally to manage Antimicrobial resistance as an alternative and or a compliment to using antibiotics,” Dr Mwethera said adding that “antibiotics will continue to be used but where we have complete resistance phages will come in handy.”

IPR have trained over 100 undergraduates, six masters and two PhD students on phages research, Dr Mwethera said.

The symposium discussed the scope of phage research in Kenya, identification of existing capacity, exploration of collaborative research and capacity building, identification of viable options for establishing phage banking and determined feasibility of holding regular phage conferences.

Speaking at a symposium in Nairobi on the status of bacteriophage research hosted by Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and Institute of Primate research (IPR), Dr Atunga Nyachieo, chief of research at IPR, said that many bacteriophage profile data has been documented and both lab capacity and technical capacity exists locally for phages development.

Kenya already has ISO-certified laboratories that can maintain repositories of various biological samples, he added.

“KEMRI has a laboratory which can be used to identify and develop phages being a nationally mandated governmental research institute for human health and ILRI focusing on safe use of livestock and associated food products while IPR focuses on biomedical animal science laboratory and conservation biology,” Dr Atunga chief researcher at IPR said.

He added that Institutions such as the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), the University of Nairobi (UoN), Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKIA), Kenyatta University (KU), Pwani University, Kisii University, the Institute of Primate Research (IPR), KEMRI, ILRI, and the US Army Medical Research Directorate in Africa are all involved in phage research.

Many scientists are also showing interest in pursuing phages research studies.

“Kenya scientists are part of global community working on phages to tackle new pandemics,” Dr Atunga said.

While Dr Lilian Musila KEMRI principal research scientist said that in addition to lytic phages, Kenyan researchers are also interested in phages that can eradicate biofilms, which are complex, multicellular bacterial clusters that tend to form on wounds and devices like urinary catheters.

“The process of continuously testing patient isolates for susceptibility to phages, and finding the phages that bacteria have developed resistance to, will help keep expanding the phage bank,” She said adding that “Kenya has readily available bacteriophages that can kill four out of six of the World Health Organization (WHO) listed priority bacteria.”

About 150 phages have been isolated from samples collected from different parts of Nairobi including abattoirs, open sewers, rivers, hospital sewages among others, and from Lake Victoria and the Indian ocean, Dr Musila added.

Dr. Nicholas Svitek, senior scientist at International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) said that they are looking at phages that will replace antibiotics to kill strains of bacteria that are known to cause disease in poultry farms in Kenya.

However, while phages may be everywhere, that does not mean they are easy to cultivate.

The process of finding phages that match the strain of infecting bacteria, getting them prepared for use, characterizing, and making sure that they are safe and efficacious is not a walk in the park.

Globally phage therapy has not been authorized to be administered to people yet with studies only beginning in Kenya.

In the early 1920s, William Twort and Felix d’Herelle co-discovered bacteriophages, also known as phages.

Using viruses is making a comeback to treat life-threatening infectious bacterial diseases and more importantly for exploring its use in the fight against bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and to reduce the risk of developing and spreading antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The over/misuse of antibiotics over the last several decades has caused many of the targeted bacteria to build up resistance to these antimicrobial drugs, making both humans and animals more vulnerable to bacterial infections.

Resistance occurs when microorganisms undergo changes that render medicines used to treat them ineffective, leaving patients vulnerable to illness, adverse events, or death.

Physicians need new drugs to treat patients with resistant infections but also need to preserve the effectiveness of existing antibiotics.

There are several established contributors to resistance including agricultural misuse, environmental pollution and poor pollution controls during production, clinician over prescription of existing medicines to meet patient demand, and patient non- adherence to established treatment protocols.

It is estimated that  antimicrobial-resistance will cause 50 million deaths by 2050.