Having perfected phage therapy during the Soviet era, Georgian scientists faced the possibility of losing everything amidst the civil war and economic dislocation which followed Georgian independence during the 1990s. Demonstrating remarkable pride and resiliency, they preserved a national treasure and rebuilt a commercial phage therapy industry which once again stands on the leading edge of scientific and medical innovation
The Aragvi River flows into the Mtkvari River at Mtskheta. Georgian Christianity took root in the fourth century at Mtskheta, which officially serves today as the Georgian Orthodox Church's "Holy City."
A Brief History of Phage Therapy
The Birth of Phage Therapy
While studying the bacteria which was causing dysentery in French World War I troops, microbiologist Felix d'Herelle observed a substance which appeared to completely obliterate that bacteria. D'Herelle named this substance “bacteriophage” (adapting the Greek word “phagin,” which means “to eat”). In 1919, d'Herelle recorded the first successful human use of phage therapy when he cured bacterial dysentery in human patients.
Phage Therapy Arrives in Georgia
After meeting d'Herelle in Paris at the Pasteur Institute and learning about phage therapy, George Eliava returns to Tbilisi, Georgia and establishes what later becomes the George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology in 1923.
Phage Therapy Falters in the West . . .
Following his initial triumph with phage therapy, D'Herelle “used phages to halt outbreaks of cholera in India and plague in Egypt,” and “phage therapy, when conducted by knowledgeable scientists like d'Herelle, met with significant success.”1 Major pharmaceutical companies like the Eli Lilly Company produced phage therapy products for human treatment in the United States – yet, “not every practitioner possessed d'Herelle's expertise . . . [and] early returns from phage therapy were mixed.”2When antibiotics appeared during the 1940s, interest in phage therapy vanished in the West.
. . . But Thrives in Georgia
Meanwhile, Felix d'Herelle joined George Eliava in Tbilisi – and Georgia's transformation into the global Center of Excellence for phage therapy began. Notwithstanding Eliava's untimely 1937 demise during Stalin's purges and d'Herelle's simultaneous departure, “the Eliava Institute . . . became the world's leading center of therapeutic phage research. One of its first successes was a powerful dysentery phage for the Red Army during . . . World War II. During the ensuing decades, the institute began supplying precisely targeted phages to hospitals all over the Soviet bloc.”3 During the 54 years that followed, the Eliava Institute boasted a staff of 1,200 and “a production capacity of approximately 2 tons per week.4
Saving a National Treasure
Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow's financial support for the Eliava Institute vanished immediately. The institute lost its ability to pay its staff, and unreliable electrical service in Tbilisi threatened the preservation of the insitute's phage “library,” which represented decades of hard work and accumulated expertise. Through creativity and perseverance, Georgian scientists achieved the near-miracle of saving this national treasure
An Industry Reborn
The Eliava Institute having "downsized into a small research center,"5, two Georgian companies - BiopharmL, LLC and JSC Biochimpharm - emerged as the major commercial producers of phage therapy products following privatization of Eliava's commercial division. In 2015, BiopharmL's exclusive partner for international marketing and distribution - Advanced Biophage Technologies International, LLC (ABTI) joined together in a united effort to promote Georgian phage products worldwide.
1. Keen, Eric C. "Phage Therapy: Concept to Cure."Frontiers in Microbiology 19 July 2012. Web.