A medical breakthrough that made headlines last week has a Rhode Island connection.
Doctors in the United Kingdom successfully used three viruses to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a young girl – a medical first. The viruses used are part of a larger group known as phages; viruses that specifically attack bacteria.
They were discovered and isolated in labs across the globe, including one at Providence College run by Dr. Kathleen Cornely.
“My students would say, ‘what’s the importance of this research?’ and I would say, ‘we want to be involved in phage therapy,’” Cornely said.
“And I never imagined that it would happen as soon as it did, and that it would be so successful, I just thought that this would be the goal for many, many years down the road.”
Phages occur in nature. The Providence College phage was found in the soil near one of the buildings on campus. An undergraduate biology major discovered and isolated his phage, and as is tradition, he got naming rights.
“And he named his phage Zoe J after his baby niece at the time,” Cornely said. “And that phage was also genetically modified. I was able to accomplish that during my sabbatical.”
Cornely made the modification to make the phage a more efficient bacteria-killing machine.
“I think that this was a really great first step that we can in fact take phages that infect bacterial pathogens, but that we can genetically modify them to do our bidding, to make them more effective than they were in nature,” Cornely said.
The success of the treatment is considered an important early step in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria; a growing concern in the medical world.