The inevitability of unrequited love took hold of Martha Vives, Ana Paula Jiménez, and Ángela Holguín, who are all researchers at Universidad de los Andes. How so? These three women gave in to bacteriophage: a predatory virus that attacks bacteria and that is, of course, incapable of loving.
However, despite this, for close to ten years, and at different times each day, this love led the three to dedicate a part of their life to bacteriophages without expecting much in return. Perhaps they only aspired to find out what they were capable of and the possibilities of using them to be applied for human beings on a daily basis.
This search led them to spend days-on-end in laboratories studying, examining, experimenting, applying, combining, and failing. They did this over-and-over again for years-at-a-time until this strange love provided fruit and the researchers from Uniandes found that the phages (as they are known informally) provided them with a world of possibilities. Professor Martha Vives and the two students Ana Paula and Ángela are not global pioneers in the field of phages; however, they managed to give them a real use that was applicable and that provided benefits in people’s daily lives; they were granted a patent for this work.
As part of their research, they developed the Salmofree® cocktail of phages, which is a formula of active viruses that are able to attack salmonella: bacteria that is found in chickens’ intestines and that are prevalent in fattening poultry. This affects humans when they eat contaminated meat, and they consequently suffer from intestinal conditions and gastroenteritis.
One of the cocktail’s greatest benefits is that it is harmless for the treated animals. It also considerably reduces the need to use antibiotics in the animal’s food. Additionally, studies have shown that Salmofree® has no effect on people who regularly eat chicken or eggs as part of their diet.
Laboratories, henhouses, and a patient
The research began as part of Ana Paula Jiménez’s master’s dissertation. The student graduated in microbiology several years ago and now studies biological sciences. The research was granted a patent by the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce and has been undertaken together with professor Martha Vives and Ángela Holguín, who is also writing a dissertation on phages that is being directed by the professor. The story of these three researchers and phages began in 2012 in the Center for Microbiological Research (CIMIC for its acronym in Spanish) at Universidad de los Andes.
Professor Vives remembers these years with a smile that reveals love: love for science, for phages, and for teaching.
“I began to rudimentarily work with phages in 2007 when working on a joint project together with the Faculty of Engineering that was completely financed by Los Andes. As part of this project, we carried out many tests and experiments, and, as months the went by, we took on more interns including both Ángela Holguín and Ana Paula who were undergraduate students. This led us to expanding the research, and in 2013 we were given the finding that led to the patent.”
As a result of their research between 2007 and 2013, they presented a project to Colciencias in order to find funding to continue making progress. The proposal was innovative: a mix of phages that directly attacked salmonella. In a country such as Colombia that has a large poultry industry, it seems fitting to present a solution to the bacteria problem. In 2013, there was progress along the road to being granted the patent. The endorsement from Colciencias as well as the funding from Los Andes allowed the experiments to be taken from the laboratory to the field: to real life.
Ana Paula Jiménez remembers how nervous she felt when she moved on to testing live chickens, but she also describes a feeling of complete certainty. She knew that the work she was undertaking with her teacher and her laboratory colleague was right. After this time, she evaluated the impact of the phages and the results surpassed all expectations: not only was the presence of the salmonella virus in the birds reduced, but no other factor was altered.
Ana Paula, who now lives in San Francisco, U.S.A. states that, “The chickens did not lose weight; they remained the ideal weight with less effort. They even increased in weight compared to those that were not given the phages in their water.”
The success of the test lay in the high historical interference of salmonella in Colombia: according to Corpoica’s figures, Salmonella paratyphi B and Salmonella Heidelberg are the prevalent strains in the country and they affect 41% of farms. This means that an antidote for these bacteria is one of the best pieces of news for the poultry sector considering the resistance that bacteria have developed against antibiotics for the sustained use that they have been given over time.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotics should only be used to treat disease and not to promote birds’ growth. This is what happens in some farms throughout the world and currently makes the phages much more valuable. However, the researchers still have a long way to go with the phages.
Moreover, in 2017, they were granted a patent for this cocktail, and they created the company SciPhage (together with Catalina Prada and Jaime Gutiérrez), which studies the applications of phages and has obtained international recognition (the St. Gallen University Academic Club Trust Fund awarded Ángela Holguín with a prize for her work).
For Ángela, phages have been present throughout her whole academic life: this began in her undergraduate degree, continued in her master’s degree, and then finally in her PhD.
Currently, one of her aims is to transmit her love of science to others. Ana Paula has an obsession: to find a way for phages to be applied to humans.
She wants the achievements that have been made in terms of the resistance to bacteria to contribute to human use: in other words, to provide an alternative to antibiotics that are used to improve health.
Although the possibility is still remote, she has a dream that is closer to being fulfilled: for the phages that she claims to be “completely in love with” to be taken on by the industry and commercialized en mass to fight salmonella in more henhouses for many more chickens. Professor Vives continues with her academic work. The phages continue to hide secrets, and she continues to be willing to share her love with whoever wants to love them as much as her – even if this love is unrequited.