As inconvenient as the procedure sounds, few people complain about it. The results are spectacular, Wolcott says: "I met a woman with a chronic ear infection who was coming back to the phage clinic for her final appointment. They gave her the therapy, and within a week, she was completely cleared up." In fact, studies published over the past several decades, based on trials conducted at Eliava and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, have shown that phage therapy has an 80 to 90 percent success rate against bacteria likely to show antibiotic resistance, such as Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli. In contrast, many antibiotics fail outright against the evolved forms of these pathogens. In June 2005, a bacterial strain resistant to the first-line antibiotic imipenem ravaged more than 50 patients at New York City hospitals. Among patients whose infections infiltrated their bloodstream, the death rate was 47 percent.
With antibiotic resistance reaching record levels worldwide, phage therapy is no longer the sole province of Eastern European researchers. British biotech firm Biocontrol wrapped up the first Phase II clinical trial of phages in Western Europe last year with dramatic results. Its phage regimen combats the Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium, which causes serious lung and ear infections and is highly resistant to antibiotics. Patients with antibiotic-resistant infections who received phage therapy experienced a 50 percent reduction in their symptoms, compared with only a 20 percent decrease in the group that did not receive phages. "Frankly, I was blown away," says Dan Nelson, a biochemist at the University of Maryland who was at the conference where Biocontrol unveiled its results.
For Wolcott, who watches hundreds of patients die every year from seemingly incurable infections, these medicinal viruses can't arrive in the U.S. fast enough. "Phage needs to be fast-tracked. It works. It's completely natural. Why can't you spray this stuff on a kid's throat right now?"single page