How to tell a good story

I have been asked to write a piece about science communication and phage therapy for a special issue of the journal VirusesHurdles for Phage Therapy (PT) to Become a Reality. It has been just published. I discuss in it how phage therapy has been communicated since the mid 1990’s when Western scientists became aware of it again after the Iron Curtain came down.

I argue that in terms of communication it has been a special case in science communication. First, there was widespread ignorance about the subject in many important communities: doctors, scientists, regulatory officials, investors, industry, and, of course, in the public as well. Second, phage therapy is experiencing a long period in which its proponents have not been able to bring it back to the markets in the Western world. I discuss shortly in the paper why this so, but concentrate mainly on the point that this entails special dangers for the communication about this discipline: How to raise awareness in the public in a scientific field that needs awareness but does not produce much news for quite some years?

To write the paper a had to do quite some research in the literature and on the web. I am glad since I haven’t had the time to do this for quite a while. I came across quite a few interesting developments in the field. If you are interested in these consider reading the paper. Some of them are discussed there.

Phagentherapie – phage therapy

Das Paper beschreibt detailliert, wie bei einem Patienten, der an einer ernsthaften Infektion mit Antibiotika-resistenten Bakterien litt, eine Phagentherapie durchgeführt wurde – sogar mit intravenös verabreichten Phagen. Der Patient überlebte.

Die Forscher und Ärzte gingen sehr sorgfältig vor, trafen zum Beispiel Vorkehrungen, dass sie dem Patienten mit den Phagen keine Toxine verabreichten. Das Paper liest sich wie ein Lehrbuch über Phagentherapie im Kurzformat. Exzellent.

Neben den Phagen bekam der Patient auch die ganze Zeit über Antibitiotika verabreicht – und so diskutieren die Forscher auch, welchen Anteil an der Heilung den Phagen zukommt. Weil es dem komatösen Patienten nach Gabe der ersten Phagen schnell deutlich besser ging, sind sie der Meinung, dass die Viren einen wichtigen Anteil an der Heilung hatten. Zusätzlich vermuten sie eine synergistische Wirkung der Phagen mit einem der eingesetzten Antibiotika; ein Phänomen, das schon länger diskutiert wird.

Das Fazit der Forscher und Ärzte: «Der Ausgang des [beschriebenen] Falls […] legt nahe, dass es stärkere Anstrengungen geben sollte, um die Phagentherapie für Infektionen mit multiresistenten Bakterien zu erforschen.»

The paper is a detailed description of a case where phage therapy was used to save a patient with a severe infection. The bacteria were resistant against a multitude of antibiotics. Phages were administered via different routes, even intravenously. The patient survived.

The researchers and doctors were meticulous. F.i. they made sure that they did not inject any toxins with the phage. The excellent paper amounts to a short version of a textbook about phage therapy.

Besides phages, the patient received during the whole course of the treatment antibiotics as well. Hence, the researchers discuss to what degree the success of the treatment can be attributed to the phage. Since the patient got better quickly after the first phage administrations they think that the viruses had an important effect. They speculate that the phage might have had a synergistic effect with one of the drugs. This phenomenon has been discussed before.

The researchers and doctors conclude: «The outcome of this case suggests that the methods described here for the production of bacteriophage therapeutics could be applied to similar cases and that a more concerted efforts to investigate the use of therapeutic bacteriophages for MDR bacterial infections are warranted.»