Converting parasites into symbionts

Converting parasites into symbionts

Fig. 1| [Source of the picture:]. Living organisms are permanently closely associated with each other. Their interactions can be classified according to the level of association of the organisms involved, the duration of these interactions and their beneficial (or not) impact on both partners. All intermediate situations exist, forming a true continuum from free organisms that need other organisms to feed themselves to parasites which life cycle is entirely based on specific hosts. Symbiosis and parasitism illustrate -beyond the extreme diversity of situations- that interactions are in all cases essential to partners’ lives, and are often at the origin of the emergence of new properties for the systems thus constituted. This is the case, for example, of microbiota associated with each of the living organisms. But it is also the case for organisms modified by parasites that infect them and even disturb the behaviour of infected hosts compared to healthy individuals. [Source:

For decades, hospitals have been complaining about the problem of antibiotic resistance – the fact that many bacteria commonly found in hospitals are resistant to treatment with antibiotics. This is one reason why many patients have major problems when they are treated in hospitals, catching other infections in addition to the indication for which they are hospitalised. At the moment infection with antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the second most frequent global cause of death. A study from November 2022 has shown that 7.7 million people worldwide have died from the pathogens since 2019 – probably more than from Covid-19.[i]

Fig. 2| Common symptoms of meningitis include a sudden high fever, headache, sleepiness, joint and muscle pain. There are many causes of meningitis, the most common being viral or bacterial infection. Bacterial meningitis is the most dangerous one. It can develop very rapidly over a few hours and can cause serious complications or even death. [Source:]

Medical scientists have been thinking about this problem and wondering how to solve it. Some have developed new antibiotics to which the bacteria are not yet resistant. However, this does not solve the general problem – one day the bacteria will probably also become resistant to these new antibiotics. This is simply due to natural selection: Some bacteria develop mutations that make them resistant, and these bacteria reproduce more frequently than the other bacteria, creating a population of bacteria that is mostly resistant to antibiotics.

Fig. 3| (a) A normal human brain removed during an autopsy. (b) The brain of a patient who died from bacterial meningitis. There is the pus under the dura mater (being retracted by the forceps) and the red haemorrhagic foci on the meninges. [Source:]

I have developed a different idea. My idea is not to use antibiotics to kill bacteria, but to use a series of biological techniques to reprogramme or re-educate bacteria. I call these techniques “symbiont conversion” because they change cells that exhibit parasitic behaviour and transform them into symbionts. Parasites harm the host organism, whereas symbionts have effects that benefit the host organism. For example, a symbiont could produce hormones that have a positive effect on the host organism.

Fig. 4| Impetigo contagiosa is a superficial skin infection that itches and often hurts. The disease is particularly common in young children and is caused by bacteria. Antibiotic ointments are often used for treatment. The problem begins with the increasingly common antibiotic resistance. This problem indicates that we must continue to look for new ideas in medicine and new treatments. [Source:]

The same approach can be used in cancer therapy. Cancer cells are also a type of parasite. By modifying these cells, they could be transformed into normal tissue.

Fig. 5| Cancer occurs when good cells go bad. With the help of bacteriophages or macrophages [the big blue one in the picture above], we can reverse this process: bad cells will go good. {Source:]

There are some researchers who have already tried to reprogramme bacteria[ii] or cancer cells[iii]. So they have confirmed that my approach actually makes sense and could work. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before symbiont conversion becomes common in clinical practice.

Fig. 6| Reprogramming bacteria instead of killing them could be the answer to antibiotic resistance. [Source:]

One way of reprogramming bacteria would be to use viruses that specifically target bacteria, known as bacteriophages. They would be able to modify the bacterial genome and, ideally, overwrite the parts of the genome responsible for the production of bacterial toxins with genes that have a positive effect.

Fig. 7 | The bacteriophage, a bacterium’s worst nightmare, might be a viable replacement for antibiotics. [Source:]

Basically, my idea of symbiont conversion represents a new research programme. Unfortunately todays’ scientific community is rather conservative, hard to tolerate innovators[iv]. As a result science is slowing down[v]. The latest study, published in Nature, finds science is becoming less innovative. As Bob Lownie commented on this in UnHerd:

“A larger volume of material is being produced but scientific research is becoming increasingly specialised, to the point of esotericism and to the detriment of significant advances. What’s more, the Nature paper finds that recent studies are “less likely to connect disparate areas of knowledge”. Using data from 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents, it provides examples of pharmaceuticals and semiconductors as areas of study which are regressing.The implications of this are damaging to the development of health and security policy, and to economic progress more broadly”[vi].

In this state of affairs it is questionable whether they will take up my ideas and actually endeavour to find out how symbiont conversion can be put into clinical practice. But I will not give up hope that symbiont conversion will be taken up by science and will save the lives and health of millions of people.

Here is my original paper.

[i] Antibiotika-resistente Bakterien: Zweithäufigste Todesursache weltweit, MDR.DE Wissen, 25. November 2022, 17:16 Uhr;

[ii] Hood, L. Reprogramming bacteria instead of killing them could be the answer to antibiotic resistance, Published: December 13, 2017 11.19am CET;

[iii] Gong, L. et al., Cancer cell reprogramming: a promising therapy converting malignancy to benignity, Cancer Communications volume 39, Article number: 48 (2019);

[iv] Zerubavel, A. The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, Oxford University Press, 2007.

[v] Piper, K. Why is science slowing down? VOX, Jan 11, 2023, 10:00am EST;

[vi] Lownie, B. Study finds science is becoming less innovative, UnHerd, January 5, 2023 – 5:00pm;

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