Inside a third-floor office a few blocks from the Hudson River in Yonkers, N.Y., a small biotechnology company called ContraFect prepares to test a remarkable new way to kill bacteria in humans. Antibiotics, after many years of use and overuse, have lost their edge against rapidly evolving bacteria, with everything from staph infections to tuberculosis becoming more devastating, deadly and difficult to treat. Whereas traditional antibiotics have mostly been derived from chemicals produced by soil bacteria and fungi, ContraFect has found an alternative in bacteriophages: viruses that infect bacteria and hijack their internal machinery. In nature, phages produce enzymes called lysins, causing the bacteria fall to pieces and new phages to tumble out by the hundreds. ContraFect believes it can harness these lysins to treat bacterial infections in humans.
The first trials for patient safety are expected to start this year. It is a moment that Vincent Fischetti, a 71-year-old microbiologist at the Rockefeller University, has been approaching for decades. A child of working-class parents on Long Island, he once thought he would be a dentist before getting hooked on microbiology as an undergraduate. Studying for his master's degree by night and paying his bills as a technician on a scarlet fever project by day, he became fascinated by phages. After years of work, he demonstrated, in 2001, that lysins could help mice fight strep throat infection. The military also sees potential in lysins, which could be administered before surgery to prevent infection or spread over surfaces to clean an area contaminated by an anthrax attack.