How can we harness the power of bacteria-killing viruses?

14 Feb 2018

Bacteriophage viruses infecting bacterial cells. Image: nobeastsofierce/Shutterstock

Dr Louise Jopling will speak at the BioPharma Ambition conference about bacteriophage, a new scientific frontier for shaping the bacteria in our guts. She talked to Dr Claire O’Connell.  

The billions of bacteria in your gut can have a profound impact on your health. But what can keep those gut bugs in check? Enter the world of bacteriophage (or simply phage): tiny viruses that can attack and kill bacteria while making more copies of their viral selves.

Could we harness these bacteria-killers to reshape the gut microbiome where it has gone awry?

Later this month at the BioPharma Ambition conference, Dr Louise Jopling from Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Prof Colin Hill from the APC Microbiome Institute and University College Cork will discuss their industry-academic collaboration to explore the use of phage in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

“We are doing a double act, which reflects the true collaborative nature of the project,” said Jopling, who is senior director of scientific innovation and immunology at J&J Innovation.

“[Colin Hill] will give an overview of what bacteriophage are and why they are important as potential diagnostic or therapeutic delivery mechanisms in the food industry and veterinary and medical indications. I will talk [about] where we at Janssen are seeing future therapeutic interventions for IBD, and how the collaboration on bacteriophage with the Cork team at the APC is underpinning one facet of that strategy.”


Dr Louise Jopling. Image: J&J Innovation

Understanding phage

Using phage to control bacteria in the body is not a new idea – they are a feature of medicine in some countries, notably Russia and Georgia – but it is not standard practice to use them in western medicine, and our scientific understanding of phage and their bacterial victims is still in its infancy, explained Jopling.

“The first wave of microbiome research has been about the bacteria and, even in last three years, we have seen more granularity about understanding the specific strains of a species of bacteria,” she said.

“Then the phage are the predators and we understand far less about phage in the context of chronic diseases like IBD, so anything we can do to progress the science and understanding of how we might modulate this is welcome.”

Academic-industry cooperation

The scientific collaboration between J&J and the APC is an example of the expertise that strengthens biopharma in Ireland, and Jopling applauded the readiness of Science Foundation Ireland to enable them to work together in a ‘spoke’ of the APC Microbiome Institute.

“Going from the inception of the idea to having a green light and the funding for the collaboration was really quick and streamlined, and I don’t think I have seen that anywhere else – it is highly enabling,” she said.

Jopling first became interested in the immune system when, as a student in Aberdeen, she studied how parasites get around it. She went on to work on HIV, lung disease and psoriasis, with academic posts in Imperial College London and Harvard before moving to the biotech industry.

Today, in her role with J&J, she covers the EMEA region for innovation in immunology.

“I am looking very much for what exciting science and programmes are out there, from early discovery to clinical proof of concept, that could generate medicines of the future,” she said.

“Patients need new technologies, new platforms, new ways of modulating the immune system; and, rather than saying we like something and we will take it, as a pharma company, we want to do it in partnership, to work on the science and go on this journey together to create products of the future.”

Dr Louise Jopling will speak on the topic ‘How bacterial viruses can change medicine as we know it’ at BioPharma Ambition on 21 February 2018.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication