A Viral Cure for Pink Eye? Bacteriophages Show Promise as a Therapeutic Option

This article was published on Forbes on 11/24/2023.

This story is part of a series on the current progression in Regenerative Medicine. This piece is part of a series dedicated to the eye and improvements in restoring vision. 


In 1999, I defined regenerative medicine as the collection of interventions that restore to normal function tissues and organs that have been damaged by disease, injured by trauma, or worn by time. I include a full spectrum of chemical, gene, and protein-based medicines, cell-based therapies, and biomechanical interventions that achieve that goal.


Millions of individuals in the United States suffer from conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, which is the inflammation of the thin, transparent membrane covering the eye’s white part. The cost of managing bacterial conjunctivitis in the United States annually amounts to 857 million US dollars.


Bacteria, viruses, allergens, or irritants can cause this illness. Although most cases of conjunctivitis are not severe, some types can lead to blindness if left untreated. Conjunctivitis can be classified into three main types: bacterial, viral, and allergic.


Types and Causes of Conjunctivitis


An allergic reaction causes the allergic type of conjunctivitis. It can cause symptoms such as redness, itching, tearing, and eye swelling. Treatment for allergic conjunctivitis involves avoiding the allergen, using antihistamine eye drops or oral medications, and sometimes using corticosteroid eye drops for severe cases. 


Viral conjunctivitis is an eye infection that is primarily caused by either the common cold or the herpes simplex virus, which is also responsible for cold sores. This highly contagious infection can spread through either direct or indirect contact with an infected eye. Symptoms of the condition include redness, itching, burning, watery discharge, sensitivity to light, and sometimes, a gritty sensation. It typically begins in one eye and eventually spreads to the other. Unfortunately, there is currently no specific treatment available for viral conjunctivitis.


Bacterial conjunctivitis is caused by certain types of bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Staphylococcus aureus. This kind of eye infection spreads quickly through direct or indirect contact. Symptoms include redness, swelling, itching, and discharge from the eye. The discharge may be transparent or yellow and can cause the eyelids to stick together, especially after waking up. The cornea may become infected in severe cases, leading to vision problems. Treating bacterial conjunctivitis usually involves antibiotic eye drops or ointments, which help relieve symptoms and clear up the infection.


Nanotechnology-based Bacteriophage Delivery Strategies


Bacteriophages are a type of virus that are naturally occurring organisms in our ecosystem. They hold a critical role in regulating and developing microbial communities. As such, they have been extensively studied and used in various fields, including phage display, cancer cell targeting, drug delivery, diagnostic applications, gene delivery, and nanoprobes. However, it is essential to note that using bacteriophages as therapeutic agents is still unproven. Definitive controlled clinical trials are needed to assess its general applicability.


Recently, they have explored their potential use in combatting the rising issue of antibiotic resistance, which has become a severe problem due to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. Bacteriophages have also drawn attention as therapeutic agents to treat bacterial ocular infections, as indicated in a study published in the Frontiers in Pharmacology journal. The authors demonstrated the efficacy of using bacteriophages to treat bacterial conjunctivitis in the survey.


Researchers have developed nanotechnology-based delivery strategies to deliver bacteriophages to the site of infection. A study published in The Journal of Microbiological Methods revealed the promising results of nanotechnology in delivering bacteriophages to treat ear infections. In this study, the authors used chitosan nanoparticles to deliver bacteriophages to the site of infection, which reduced the bacterial load and inflammation.


Another study published in the Nanomaterials journal explored the potential use of liposomes to deliver bacteriophages to the site of infection. The authors showed that the bacteriophages were stable and effective at killing pathogenic bacteria, offering a promising alternative to antibiotics.


Using bacteriophages in nanotechnology-based delivery strategies can offer several advantages. They are highly specific and only target the bacteria causing the infection, leaving other bacteria unharmed. This reduces the risk of developing antibiotic resistance and minimizes potential side effects. Furthermore, bacteriophages can penetrate biofilms that otherwise protect bacteria from antibiotics, as noted in the study.


Antibiotic resistance is a serious global issue, and exploring alternative treatment options like bacteriophages is essential. However, it’s important to be cautious and wait for definitive controlled clinical trials before using them as a treatment. This will help us to fully understand and assess their applicability and ensure that they are used effectively in addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance.


The Future of Conjunctivitis Treatment


The future of conjunctivitis treatment is bright with the advances in technology. Researchers are exploring ways to use gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9, to fight bacterial infections that cause conjunctivitis. Researchers are also looking for ways to develop new treatments targeting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There is also a focus on developing more effective therapies for viral conjunctivitis. The use of nanotechnology-based bacteriophage delivery strategies shows promise and could lead to the development of new treatments for bacterial ocular infections.


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