Pioneering centre is making a difference one year after officially opening

Posted by: Jamie Sharp - Posted on:

A pioneering new centre which studies bacteriophages to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria is celebrating its one-year anniversary.

The Centre for Phage Research at the University of Leicester officially opened in May 2023. It is the only centre of its kind to exist in the UK dedicated to looking at alternatives to antibiotics – specifically the potential use of phages to fight bacterial infections.

It follows warnings from the World Health Organisation that antibiotics are becoming less effective at treating bacterial infection. Phages are viruses that infect bacteria and kill them.

Since the centre opened it has established the first large-scale UK phage biobank – a collection of phages to allow researchers from home and abroad to develop their understanding and assist in identifying the most effective phages for future treatments. It is hoped this will fast-track phage use in the NHS, enabling clinical trials to take place so they can be more widely used. 

Experts from the centre have also provided evidence to the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Select Committee Inquiry on the potential for phages to be used in medicine and to the Government’s UK 5-year action plan for antimicrobial resistance which now specifically names phages as alternatives.

Centre Director and Professor of Microbiology, Martha Clokie, said: “We’re thrilled that the centre is going from strength to strength and fulfilling our ambitions for its future. 

“We’ve already attracted more than £2 million funding to continue our work and advance our research. This has allowed our team to grow and includes the addition of an expert in respiratory diseases to study how phages work in lungs, as well as three new research associates and four new PhD students to ensure we’re training the next generation of phage researchers. 

“We have helped develop effective phages for humans and the agricultural world, from the treatment of UTIs to Salmonella and conjunctivitis in cows along with cocktails to extend the shelf-life of langoustines. This really is just the beginning, but our hope is that we can ensure the wider production of phages in larger scales where needed for the benefit of all.”

The team is working with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to develop a set of phage standards to ensure their efficacy and safety.  

Dr Andrew Millard Co-Director of the Centre said: “The development of sequencing standards will help us progress towards GMP (Good Manufacturing Process – the standard to which medicines are made) production of phages and will support their use in therapy by allowing clinical data to be collected on standardised products.”

The team has also developed important links with the Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Virology, in Georgia – the oldest and largest Institute of phage research in the world which was founded in 1923 and has a long and vibrant history of phage research and use to treat patients.   

Although one type of antibiotic can kill a variety of bacteria, phages can only infect a narrow range, often just one type or even a subset of types. This makes prescribing the right phages for a specific infection more difficult than prescribing an antibiotic.

However, the specificity and complexity of phages means that they could be incredibly useful when it comes to fighting ever-evolving microorganisms that make us sick, as phages can remove the undesirable bacteria and look after the rest of the helpful bacteria. 

Phages are naturally occurring in the environment around us and can be found where high numbers of bacteria lurk.  

Professor Clokie added: “The use of phages could extend the life of antibiotics and in some cases slow down or reverse resistance as well as being able to treat people in the near future who currently can’t be treated by doctors so we’re very excited to be carrying out this vital research which could benefit us all.”