June 1st 2011, 16:18
Pity the poor general practitioner. He doesn't have the tools for the heroic gesture, unlike his counterpart in emergency medicine who saves lives, patches people up and generally performs miracles on a daily basis. The general practitioner deals with the chronic problems, those persistent health issues that never get better. All he can offer are drugs to make the patient comfortable, less aware of his symptoms perhaps-but the underlying problem doesn't go away. No heroics there.
That's all true-except for one class of drugs that's been available to the doctor for the past 60 years. The antibiotics have made a hero of the general practitioner. With these wonder drugs, the doctor has made health problems go away, and with a scribble on his prescription pad, he's been able to write off disease.
No wonder, then, that he has just kept on writing out those prescriptions. Got a sore throat? Try an antibiotic. Your child has an ear infection? Take some penicillin. Got a cold, a fever, or a cough? Well, have some methicillin, just in case.
This overuse, or abuse, of medicine's greatest triumph has its consequences-the superbug, which is resistant to antibiotics. As our cover story reveals, we have developed, through our own stupidity, the ultimate superbug-one that creates superbugs out of any bug, and is resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics.
Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin by accident in 1928, predicted this day would come. He knew that his discovery was a frozen moment in time of an evolutionary process that had been waged for billions of years. When he looked down his microscope, a fungus had the upper hand over the bugs. Had he left it for 50 years, the bugs might have demolished the fungus.
At around the same time-in Russia-a scientist had also made an accidental discovery, and one that showed similar promise. George Eliava discovered that certain viruses could kill bacteria. As he delved deeper, he found that each deadly bug has its unique viral nemesis. The virus closes in on that bug alone and destroys it.
These viruses are called 'bacteriophages' (literally, 'bacteria killers'), and they form the basis of phage therapy, which has been neglected for the past 30 years. It has a number of advantages over antibiotics, but the major one is that it harnesses natural processes. The virus is alive and adapts as quickly as its bacterial prey, so-in phage therapy-there can never be a superbug or, at least, not for long.
Man, or the general practitioner, may be smart. But Nature is smarter.