Can viruses and bacteria kill each other? - (1/11/2022)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Say, doc," said retired Dr. Norton to the pharmacist. 'Remember all those Wild West movies we used to watch when we were kids?" "Oh yeah, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy," recalled the pharmacist. "Cowboys, Indians, the OK Corral," shot back Mr. Norton. 'The bad guys and the good guys. Or maybe they were all bad guys," mused the pharmacist. "Because when they weren't gunslinging, they were gambling and drinking."

Even though Dr. Nelson gave up his medical practice several years before, his interest in healing never wavered. "Yes, too bad those old rustlers couldn't be put to good use, like those other bad guys, bacteria and viruses." The pharmacist has known Dr. Nelson for a long time, so he was used to him turning on a dime in any given conversation. "I've been catching up on the medical literature," Dr. Nelson said. "Studies are revealing that bacteria can kill deadly viruses. And viruses can kill deadly bacteria." OK," replied the pharmacist. "How would that work?"

"We are reaching the end of the antibiotic age," Dr. Nelson explained. “The more we use antibiotics, the more resistant they become to antibiotics. "Yes, superbugs, that can even be flesh-eating," said the pharmacist. "Soon, even the most common bacterial infections will thrive in the human body, and we won't be able to treat them with the drugs we have." “Our current pool of antibiotics will not kill viruses,” continued Dr. Norton. "We have some antiviral drugs, such as for AIDS," he said. "And we have vaccines, like for COVID. But as you know, the coronavirus keeps mutating. So then, we have to figure out if the current vaccines will protect us."

"So, you are saying that there are viruses that prey on bacteria?" the pharmacist asked. "Yes, they are called bacteriophages – from the Greek meaning 'bacteria that devours' – and they can be tamed to invade certain bacteria and wipe out that germ's colony." "Hence, they could be programmed to eat only the bad bacteria and preserve the good bugs, such as those in the gut. Viruses are not living things," Dr. Norton reminded the pharmacist. Why? Because a virus needs a host to reproduce, such as animal cells, otherwise they are goners. Viruses float around the environment, searching for a breeding ground. But bacteria are living organisms. They fight to stay alive. They can thrive on a dirty toilet seat or inside raw hamburger until they strike gold. 

However, bacteria are more complicated than viruses. They can use part of their DNA – a long molecule that encodes all the information in a cell – to "remember" which viruses are their enemies. The yogurt industry first discovered this concept when investigators found that certain bacteria used in the yogurt-making process were "virus-proof." The challenge is that this technology can also predict and correct specific mutations in human cells. "Is this ethically and morally the right thing to do?" pondered Dr. Nelson. "What if a pregnant woman wants a girl instead of a boy? Or a blonde instead of a redhead?" 'The only thing to do right now is cut back on the number of antibiotics we prescribe.

"I wonder if viruses can kill each other. Can bacteria wipe out other forms of bacteria?" asked the pharmacist. "We've been observing and studying these questions for a long time," said Dr. Nelson. "How about us getting together this weekend and catch that John Wayne marathon? "Oh, the Duke. Sure thing," said the pharmacist. "Then, we can watch the cowboys gunning for each other!" “But not the Duke, right?” quipped the pharmacist. “Never the Duke” Dr. Norton agreed.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


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