The BBC recently ran an article on the state of research into using bacteriophages to vaccinate against diseases.
A bacteriophage is a virus that attacks bacteria but which is generally harmless to human beings. The Soviet Union researched using bacteriophages to attack bacterial disease, but researchers are currently focused on using bacteriophages as vaccine delivery vehicles.
Such research relies on the fact that in some cases injecting a DNA strand of a virus into an animal creates an immune response to the protein that the DNA expresses. If a genetically engineered bacteriophage could be developed that would contain DNA of common viruses that would then elicit an immune response when injected into human beings, this would drastically reduce the cost of producing vaccines because the bacteriophages could be cheaply grown in culture.
The major obstacle is that so far this phenomena has only been reproduced in mice and other small animals. Even there, however, bacteriophage vaccines could positively impact human health. For example, researchers at the University of Florida are investigating using bacteriophages to prevent and treat Vibrio vulnificus which is the leading cause of death associated with eating seafood. Researchers are looking at using bacteriophages to purify oysters of V. vulnificus before they reach the tables of consumers.
As the research in animals continues, scientists learn more about bacteriophages and their possible role in vaccination that could someday lead to breakthroughs in understanding how they could be applied to vaccinating human beings.
Hope for cheaper, better vaccines. Richard Black, The BBC, June 5, 2003.