Sunday 31 March 2024

The Good Virus

All The World’s
A Phage

The Good Virus - The Untold Story of Phages: The Most Abundant Life Forms on Earth and What They Can Do For Us
by Tom Ireland
Hodder And Stoughton
ISBN 9781529365245

Just a quick shout out to a book I received on my birthday, back in January. For me, this is this year’s ‘beginning of the year’ candidate for a science based book, something out of my comfort zone, to mix in with all the film and fiction. The Good Virus, subtitled The Untold Story of Phages: The Most Abundant Life Forms on Earth and What They Can Do For Us highlights the history of what will soon be a commonly known (one hopes) crucial element in helping our species survive the next step in our seemingly evolutionary suicide.

Now, I only briefly came across phages in Star Trek... my memory is pointing me to the movie Star Trek Insurrection but it could maybe also be one of the few Voyager episodes I’ve seen. The reality is, there are literally gazillions of these viral life forms (we’re at the stage where we can now all agree a virus is a life form, yes?) to every piece of bacteria on our bodies... of which there are also gazillions. Indeed, I believe there are millions, if not billions of these phages within a 1mm area of a human's tissue (and anything else in the world for that matter) so, if you do the maths you come up with the kind of numbers that someone like me can’t even picture... so the claim in the subtitle about the abundance of this life form on the planet is pretty definitive (at least until we can see things even smaller than the beyond microscopic phages).

Phage is short for bacteriophage and it’s basically ‘a good virus’ because it can treat and cure many seemingly incurable diseases and conditions where antibiotics are failing. Except... the technology didn’t develop or survive most places because of the political unrest in the majority of the world and one of the only countries for a good long while where any research was being done around phages at all was Georgia, in Russia (where, if you are desperate enough... many are... and can afford it, you can make the trek and get yourself cured of ailments outside the range of western medicines).

The writer, Tom Ireland, is pretty good with his words and writes the book in a friendly, indeed, intriguing way to both put over the importance of these little critters (the classic versions out of the billions on billions of species already catalogued look just like the lunar landers used on the moon, enough so that the author believes the design of which was inspired by the image of a phage) and tell the story of phages in a way that is understandable even to an ignorant layman like myself. This is what good writing is about folks... something which is also in abundance in this specific tome.

Written during the coronavirus lockdown, Ireland hooks the reader by starting a little late in the story with the siege of Stalingrad in 1942, where a scientist and her colleagues were swiping nazi corpses away into the night to enable her to engineer cholera resistant drugs for the Russian troops. He then takes us back to where it all started (in terms of mankind’s awareness of phages) to the two people in two different countries who more or less simultaneously first discovered that something too small to see with the naked eye was eating away at the bacteria on certain plates in their respective laboratories.

He talks about various uses as an almost miracle cure medicine, the involvement of Stalin and the Russian people who refused the Western ideas which included the later discovery of penicillin and antibiotics... patriotically continuing to advance phage science instead... and all manner of political and scientific non acceptance and upheavals, not least from the various drug agencies who fail to recognise and authorise bacteriophages as a legitimate pursuit, for a variety of reasons made clear in this book. Although, while it certainly mentions the ‘cost and profits’ factor in the development of a fluid technology which has to be customised to each individual patient... it doesn’t go as far as to highlight the fact that our various governments don’t want us to live any longer and be free from many life threatening diseases (pension pots, overpopulation, keeping their little empires into manageable sizes etc).

However, there is more research being done on this now more than ever before in the history of the planet and there are certainly many lights at the end of the tunnel in terms of the medical implications of these creatures (which are more known about than I thought... of the many phage related things you can buy on ebay, you can even get a soft toy plushie of a cute and fairly accurate looking phage) and that’s good because, there damn well needs to be.

For years now we have been listening to scientists telling us that antibiotics will fail due to bacterial resistance any year now (and as this book points out, some bacteria are now even resistant to various disinfectants) but the author emphasises that we’re in the eleventh hour now folks. And our only way out, it would seem, is to embrace the humble phage and find a way forward for our species before we are waking up to news headlines (fairly soon by the sound of it) where hundreds of thousands of people are dying evey month or so.

The book doesn’t just focus on the medicinal properties of phages, though. It also looks at other ways the various species can and have already helped us in many breakthroughs in life (such as CRISPR, look it up). And this is all very good and vital but, of course, if we don’t continue to properly research these things (which takes loads of cash, of course) then we are certainly in dire straits and will be plunged back into the dark ages, medicinally speaking.

As I said, the book is really well written and also very humorous it has to be said. And any writer who compares certain kinds of bacteriophages to the miniaturised submarine in the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage has got to be a good guy. Now, I can’t possibly sum up the breadth of what this writer has managed to research and put together here but I can say I would definitely advise picking this tome up and finding out about what phages are now, before you’re left playing catch up as they infiltrate the popular media in years to come. So, yeah, The Good Virus - The Untold Story of Phages: The Most Abundant Life Forms on Earth and What They Can Do For Us is a big recommendation from me and it may even change the way you think about life on this planet.

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