Phage therapy gains public support as antibiotic resistance crisis worsens

A recent study published in PLOS ONE has found that the public is supportive of the development of bacteria-killing viruses as a potential alternative to antibiotics. The study also suggests that increased efforts to educate the public about this treatment can significantly increase their likelihood of using it.

The rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has made previously treatable infections potentially fatal, leading to a renewed interest in exploring antibiotic alternatives such as phage therapy. Although phage therapy was initially investigated over a century ago, it was largely abandoned in many countries in favor of antibiotics.

The study indicates that public acceptance of phage therapy is already moderately high, and when people are exposed to information about novel medicines and antibiotic resistance, their willingness to use phage therapy increases. Interestingly, the study also found that the use of more neutral and less alarming terminology, such as referring to phages as “natural bacterial predators” instead of “viruses that kill bacteria,” led to higher acceptance rates.

The survey conducted for the study revealed that 92% of participants were aware of antibiotic resistance, but only 13% had heard about phage therapy prior to the survey. Factors such as success and side effect rates, treatment duration, and approval status influenced participants’ preferences for different treatments.

The research was carried out by Sophie McCammon, Kirils Makarovs, Susan Banducci, and Vicki Gold from the University of Exeter. Dr. Banducci emphasized that while the UK public has limited knowledge about phage therapy, the study demonstrated extensive acceptance and support for its development. Additionally, exposure to even limited information about antibiotic resistance and alternative treatments increased public acceptance of phage therapy.

The researchers organized a workshop with experts and conducted a review of phage research. They also administered a survey to gauge the UK public’s acceptance, opinions, and preferences regarding phage therapy. A total of 787 people completed the survey in December 2021.

Participants were presented with two scenarios: one involving a minor infection and the other an infection that had not responded to antibiotics for three months. They were asked to rank selected attributes based on their importance in deciding whether to accept a treatment or not.

The participants were randomly assigned one of four descriptions of phage therapy and then surveyed to assess their acceptance of the treatment. Overall, acceptance of phage therapy was high among the participants. However, descriptions of phage therapy that included terms like “kill” and “virus” resulted in lower acceptance rates compared to alternative descriptions. Moreover, participants who had recently been exposed to information about antibiotic resistance and alternative treatments were more accepting of phage therapy.

Out of the 787 survey participants, 213 provided written responses expressing their opinions on the potential of phage therapy. Within this group, 38% showed a specific interest in phage therapy development, while an additional 17% expressed support for the development of antibiotic alternatives in general.

Sophie McCammon highlighted the advantage of phage therapy, namely its minimal side effects. She suggested that emphasizing this aspect through education and marketing efforts could increase public acceptance of the treatment.

Although routine clinical use of phage therapy in the UK may still be years away, the mounting pressures of the AMR crisis necessitate evaluating the public’s acceptance of alternative treatments. The study’s findings indicate a clear desire among the public for increased education on the topic. McCammon proposed expanding interactive programs that involve children in phage research as a means to generate excitement about the therapy and raise awareness among the next generation likely to be treated with antibiotic alternatives.

Source: University of Exeter

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