Bacteriophages as an alternative to antibiotics

With our support, Dr Lucy Grist at the University of Surrey completed her PhD focusing on the issue of antibiotic resistance in companion animal medicine, and the subsequent need for alternatives to antibiotics.


Lucy is also our first ever fully-funded PhD, and this milestone achievement for both Lucy and Humanimal Trust shows that our support is not only progressing One Medicine research with real potential to benefit both humans and animals, it is also helping to ensure a new generation of One Medicine researchers can carry the message forward.

“Funding from Humanimal Trust, and the use of a One Medicine approach, has offered a unique perspective of the complexities associated with AMR in veterinary medicine, and has highlighted the contrasts and parallels with human medicine,” says Lucy.

“Approaching research with this outlook has been an eye-opening experience which has allowed me to develop as a researcher, all whilst contributing to an important and topical area of study.”


What was the research about?

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics (i.e., the ‘superbug’ problem) is an emerging major threat to both human and animal health. The World Health Organisation recently highlighted antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest single threats to global health today. Bacteriophage-based therapy could potentially help reduce the need for antibiotics, or improve their effectiveness. Bacteriophages (phages) are small viruses which can infect and kill the bacteria that cause infections. Lucy’s research particularly focused the potential need and feasibility of introducing phage therapy as an acceptable antimicrobial in small animal medicine in the UK.


What did the research achieve?

As part of this project Lucy produced valuable work investigating the ability of phages to target and kill strains of E. coli which have caused infections in canine patients. Her findings will contribute further research understanding the mechanisms that enable phages to kill bacteria, and to assess their safety as alternative antimicrobials.

Read a scientific poster about this work here.

A second part of Lucy’s project focused on understanding the nature of public and veterinary perceptions of the use of antibiotics and novel phage-based antimicrobials to tackle antibiotic resistance. A survey and interviews with UK vets and pet owners found that vets commonly had difficulties finding effective antibiotics to treat infections, underscoring the pressing need for vets to find alternative antimicrobial medicines. The study also revealed that both vets and pet owners were positive and open to the concept of using phage therapy in companion animals. However, there were also some interesting differences between the two groups, including varying levels of overall awareness about the therapy, and who is responsible for prudent antimicrobial use. This work has helped highlight some of the challenges and communication needs that must be met when raising awareness about antibiotic and introducing alternative antimicrobials in public settings.

The full study is freely available in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.


How is this research related to One Medicine?

Some countries already use phage therapy in medicine, but awareness around this therapy in the UK is still generally low. This could hinder any potential roll-out of phage therapy. One way of raising awareness and acceptance of phage therapy in the UK, as well as helping to provide better treatments for companion animals, could be through its introduction into small animal medicine. Lucy’s work suggests that antibiotic use in companion animals is vulnerable to the same human behaviours as those seen in human medicine, and provides much needed information on some of the challenges that will need to be overcome, should phage therapy be introduced for wider use in the UK.

“The companion animal sector of veterinary medicine is often overlooked when considering the reach and impact of antimicrobial resistance and excessive antibiotic use.” says Lucy. “This project has highlighted the significance of companion animal medicine in terms of antibiotic use and as a potential health literacy tool when introducing alternative antimicrobials.”


Project start date: 2017 [Project completed]