Engineering Viruses Called Phages for Disease Treatment

A type of virus, phages, may hold the key to fighting bacterial pathogens in the future, particularly with the rise of multidrug-resistant bacteria. Phages are completely harmless to humans, but they can kill their bacterial hosts—if the bacteria do not mount a successful immune response. Researchers have already used phages to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and have bioengineered them to detect, separate, and concentrate particular types of bacteria.

The ability to rapidly engineer new phages for biosensing and disease treatment would be a critical advantage to human health. Important hurtles remain however, inhibiting the realization of phages’ full potential.

Sam R. Nugen, Food Science—in collaboration with Julie M. Goddard, Food Science, Joseph E. Peters, Microbiology, Martin Wiedmann, Food Science, and Haiyuan Yu, Computational Biology—is combining synthetic biology and machine learning to design and synthesize new phages as advanced diagnostic and therapeutic tools.

The project’s innovative approach uses top-down characterizations for bottom-up design and synthesis of novel phages. Nugen and his collaborators will modify phages to avoid a patient’s innate immune response, making a more effective therapeutic tool; develop magnetic phages for detecting and separating bacteria; facilitate faster design of phages that bind with specific bacteria through the use of machine learning tools; and bioengineer phages that interact with a broad but specified range of bacterial targets. The research will accelerate development of phage-based tools for rapidly detecting bacterial pathogens in human, food, and environmental samples and for treating diseases from multidrug-resistant bacteria.

NIH Award Number: 1R01EB027895-01

Cornell Researchers

Funding Received

$2.6 Million spanning 4 years