When Brillon arrived for a follow-up appointment three weeks later, Wolcott entered the room with a dropper in one hand and a vial of liquid that looked suspiciously like pond water in the other. The liquid, it turned out, was Wolcott's "anything": a murky concoction filled with bacteria-eating viruses known as bacteriophages. Physicians in Eastern Europe, Wolcott had explained to Brillon earlier, have been using phages safely since the 1920s to treat conditions that defy conventional antibiotics, from strep and tuberculosis to infected sores like his. Even U.S. drug companies sold them until the early 1940s, when penicillin came along and proved easier to use, generally more effective and, in the end, more lucrative than phages. The viruses might not help, he admitted, but if they didn't hurt, what was the harm in trying?
Brillon didn't need much convincing. The Food and Drug Administration was another story. Since 1963, the agency has mandated a strict approval process for all medications sold in America. Phage therapy has yet to be subjected to it, so Wolcott had to petition his state regulatory board to allow him to administer it only to people who had exhausted all other options. Then, because you can't find phages in U.S. pharmacies, he had to trek all the way to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to get it. There it's sold over the counter like eyedrops. He bought, for $2 each, three clear glass bottles, each filled with a liquid containing hundreds of types of phages.
"That's it?" Brillon asked, after Wolcott dribbled a few drops of the yellowish liquid onto his wound. The stuff was painless. Nothing much happened over the first few days, and Brillon braced himself for another disappointment. But as the week passed, the sore began to fade to a healthier pink, and then a new island of healthy skin emerged, expanding steadily every day. Within three weeks, the wound was completely healed. "You'd better take pictures of this," Brillon told Wolcott, "or nobody is going to believe it."
Brillon's recovery was astonishing, but it wasn't a one-shot deal. Wolcott had also given the phage solution to 10 of his other worst-case patients, and many of them were showing similar results. If phages worked for them, Wolcott reasoned, couldn't they also work for the millions of patients in the U.S. living with infections resistant to antibiotics? His patients, he felt, were proof of it. The real question was whether he could convince the FDA.
As viruses go, phages are relatively benign. They're the most abundant naturally occurring organisms on Earth. They can be found virtually everywhere—-in soil, drinking water, sewage. In fact, each one of us naturally has billions of them in our bodies. They prey only on bacteria, never human cells, they rarely spread from person to person, and, perhaps most important, bacteria have trouble becoming immune to them. As living organisms, phages are constantly changing and adapting in tandem with their host bacteria to kill them more effectively. Phage therapy could therefore eliminate the vicious cycle in which bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, necessitating the development of new, even more powerful drugs, at which point the process begins all over again.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.