What is Phage Therapy?

Bacteriophages or "phages" are a particular class of viruses that only infect bacteria. Lytic bacteriophages insert themselves and replicate inside of their bacterial host. They then release a "lytic enzyme" that causes the cell wall to rupture, thereby killing the bacterium and releasing multiple progeny phages. The term "biological control" or "biocontrol" means controlling one type of organism with another predator-type organism. It relies on natural mechanisms but typically also involves an active human management role.

Phage therapy is the therapeutic use of select lytic bacteriophages to biocontrol specific strains of bacteria. It is a mechanism for eliminating the specific bacteria that cause an infection.

History of Phage Therapy

While other scientists were also discovering bacteriophages at around the same time, the two scientists that concurrently discovered bacteriophages and in 1923 the Eliava Institute was established. Under direction from Stalin the Institute developed antibacterial therapies for the entire Soviet Union. Their first product was utilized by the Red Army for use on diarrhea and dysentery that Russian troops encountered in the field, particularly during WWII.

In early 1919, Felix d'Hérelle isolated phages from chicken feces, successfully treating a plague of chicken typhus with them. After this successful experiment on chicken, he felt ready for the first trial on humans. The first patient was healed of dysentery using phage therapy in August 1919. Many more followed.

At the time, none, not even d'Hérelle, knew exactly what a phage was. D'Hérelle claimed that it was a biological organism that reproduces, somehow feeding off bacteria. Others, the Nobelist Jules Bordet chief among them, theorized that phages were inanimate chemicals, enzymes specifically, that were already present in bacteria, and only trigger the release of similar proteins, killing the bacteria in the process. Due to this uncertainty, and d'Herelle using phages without much hesitation on humans, his work was under constant attack from many other scientists. It was not until the first phage was observed under an electron microscope by Helmut Ruska in 1939 that its true nature was established.

In about 1934, d'Hérelle went to Tbilisi, Georgia. He was welcomed to the Soviet Union as a hero, bringing knowledge of salvation from diseases ravaging the eastern states. D'Hérelle may have accepted Stalin's invitation for two reasons. Firstly, he was said to be enamored with communism. Secondly, d'Hérelle was happy to be working with his friend, Professor George Eliava, founder of the Tbilisi Institute, in 1923.[6] Eliava had become friendly with d'Herelle during a visit to the Pasteur Institute in Paris in 1926, and had used that occasion to learn about phages. D'Hérelle worked at the Tbilisi Institute off and on for about a year. He even dedicated one of his books to Comrade Stalin: "The Bacteriophage and the Phenomenon of Recovery," written and published in Tbilisi in 1935. Indeed, d'Hérelle may have planned to take up permanent residence in Tbilisi, as he had started to build a cottage on the grounds of the Institute. The same building would later house the Georgian headquarters of the NKVD.[7]

Fortunes turned abruptly for d'Hérelle when Eliava fell in love with the same woman as Lavrenty Beria, head of the secret police. Eliava was executed and denounced as an enemy of the people during one of Stalin's purges. As a result, d'Hérelle fled Tbilisi, never to return. His book was banned from distribution. Source: Wikipedia

From 1909 to 1912 George Eliava studied medicine, at Novorossiysk University, continued his studies in Geneva until 1914, and graduated at Moscow University in 1916. The same year, he became head of the bacteriological laboratory in Trabzon, in 1917 he headed the bacteriological laboratory in Tbilisi. In 1918-1921, and again in 1926-1927, he worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he met Félix d'Hérelle, the co-discoverer of bacteriophages. Eliava got excited about the potential of bacteriophages in medical applications, and brought the research (and, eventually, d'Hérelle), to Tbilisi.

In 1923, Eliava founded a bacteriological institute in Tbilisi on the basis of the laboratory he headed since 1921, to research and promote phage therapy. After his death, the institute was renamed George Eliava Institute in 1988. Since 1927, Eliava held the chair for hygiene at the medical faculty of Tbilisi, and since 1929 the chair for microbiology. In 1934, the Tbilisi Black Death Centre was founded and headed by Eliava.

In 1937, Eliava was arrested and (together with his wife) executed as a "People's Enemy", either for being an intellectual or for competing for a woman with Lavrenti Beria, chief of the secret police to Joseph Stalin. Source: Wikipedia

More Recent Times

Still in operation today, Eliava Institute and it's successor company JSC Biochimpharm are manufacturing and enhancing products that biocontrol the most common clinical pathogens, including Salmonella spp., Shigella spp., Pseudomonas aeruginosa, E.coli, Staphylococcus spp., Streptococcus spp., Enterococcus spp., Proteus spp. and several others. Products produced by the ISO standard JSC Biochimpharm are now distributed throughout Central Asia and, in the very near future, the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. Compounding labs in Georgia can be engaged to produce custom phage cocktails for patients whose infections are found to be resistant to the commercially available products.

As of today, no organization anywhere in the world can match the host ranges and efficacy of the products manufactured by Eliava Biopreparations and JSC Biochimpharm.

It's Not Just the Phages

An effective medication is an essential element of a good outcome, however the protocols are equally important. The dosage (how much for how long) and means of administration are critical. Georgia is still the only place in the world where medical professionals have such experience -- they have a 100 year head start.