Probiota 2022 Video and Interview: Why the world doesn't need to be afraid of bacteriophages

By Liza Laws

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags bacteriophage microbiome Prebiotics Probiota Probiotics Gut health Nutrition

Interest in the human microbiome has never been higher, but much of the attention to date has focused on bacteria, with much less research dedicated to fungi (the mycobiome) and viruses called bacteriophages (known as the virome or phageome).

Phages targeting specific undesirable bacteria may beneficially impact the gut microbiome, and this is an avenue of investigation for food and supplements, and the pharmaceutical industry.  

One of the companies in the pharma space leading the research and development of phages is Ferring Pharmaceuticals. At the recent Probiota in Copenhagen, NutraIngredients caught up with Kristin Wannerberger, Director R&D Alliance Management for Ferring Pharmaceuticals, to find out more…  

How did you end up discovering your passion for microbiota phages and all things gut?

I have been interested in nutrition since I was a teenager, I don’t know why, it just always interested me. When I started looking at university courses, I wanted something related to health and nutrition and I discovered chemical engineering had a section on nutrition and food microbiology. I studied extra modules around dairy technology and when I had finished that I started my PhD studies and my main interest was in fermentation - this was in the late 80s.

I decided to embark on a project where the hypothesis was that fermentation could have a beneficial effect on fish feed which was a bit strange but I was exploring a lot on my own. My Professor told me that it was just too complex and that I would never be able to defend the thesis and he was right – you didn’t have any of the sequencing you have now, it didn’t exist. There were no instruments available to analyse the genome of the microbial content. After that I started a new PhD on proteins, enzyme activity. My interest was still within food, fermentation and nutrition but with my experience my option at that time was to work in pharma. I started to work for AstraZeneca and then I went to Ferring where I have been for many years.

At Probiota, you explained some of your work with phages. It’s a slightly less-known area, how did you end up becoming involved with this area?

At that time, our CSO who was French knew there was an institute in Tbilisi focusing on bacteriophages and he initiated a project. At that time I had a role in Ferring as Global Project Director and was given the project. With time my old interest for microbiology awakened. I asked him if I could participate in some conferences around the microbiome and in 2013, I attended my first conference in probiotics and prebiotics in Italy.

This is the timeframe when phages and the microbiome were really starting to attract a lot of interest – there was a complete explosion in the field with conferences, knowledge sharing, papers, articles and studies. I also did some work with my old colleagues from academia in Sweden on using Atomic Force Spectroscopy for studying changes in mucosa at various pH.

In 2015, we had a new CSO and so I showed him some of my work and ideas and what I was doing with the bacteriophages and at the time, I hadn’t realised he was a microbiome person and he became very passionate when he saw what I was working on and he said there and then that we were going to work more with the microbiome.

I noticed a lot of people at Probiota had an itch for bacteriophage knowledge that needed scratching – how would you explain them to people and why it’s exciting and should be a more prevalent area in the future?

They are part of the human entity and all around us in nature; they are inside us and outside us and they are in everything we eat and drink. The help to keep the microbial balance in nature. There are of course some industries that don’t like them, for example the dairy industry is cautious because if there was an outbreak in their facilities the bacteriophages could kill important bacteria.

Before we had penicillin, bacteriophages were used to treat infections - for example if you had an infection in an arm or a leg and this was happening a 100 years ago, then this is what you would be treated with. Félix d’Herelle, the French-Canadian who discovered left France for Georgia after the discovery of antibiotics. He wanted to continue with phages, so he started an institute in Tbilisi together with the Georgian Professor Eliava.

This was in the 1920s and they didn’t have any of the analytical methods, they did not know what a phage is  and the studies that were done with phages at that time were not interpreted correctly – hypothesis were built on that the phase was a sort of enzyme. and it is another reason they got a bad reputation and they are still excluded in Europe.

Do you think they will make a comeback now that more and more people are waking up to probiotics, gut health, more natural responses?

It depends who you ask but the fact is that antibiotics don’t work as well as before due to antimicrobial resistance. We used them so much that many of the bad pathogens are resistant. It sadly means that without an alternative that many more people will die due to bacterial infections.

When we get an infection now, we go to the doctor for a prescription, how would this work with phages?

Phages are used for treating wound infections in Georgia – you identify the specific bacteria involved in the infection, then you find the phages that kill the bacteria.

You can, in principle, take it as a liquid or tablet but there are currently no approved products for medial use in the western world and approved according to the rules that are in those countries and it is certainly not to the standard of Europe – but I am sure it is only a matter of time and I am sure that companies are already looking at this.

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