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BACTERIOPHAGES - GENESIS.
Like most discoveries, it happen quietly and without much fuss. A British
chemist, E. H. Hankin, noticed that water from the sewage-infested
Ganges & Jumma rivers seemed to be able to kill cholera bacteria. In
1915, simultaneous discoveries by British bacteriologist Frederick W. Tort
and Felix d'Herelle, of the Pasteur Institute, Paris found that a
'microbe' found in the faeces of a dysentery patient could kill Shigella
bacteria. He called this microbe a 'bacteriiophage' from the Latin 'phage'
meaning to eat, although until the advent of the electron microscope the
method of destruction was just speculation.
Along with his colleagues at the Institute, they were the first to realise
the therapeutic implications of this new discovery and in 1919 they set
about treating a 12 year old boy, suffering with severe dysentery. First
giving themselves a trial dose 100-times the planned dose, to check the
preparation's safety, they treated the boy, who made a full recovery in a
few days. At the time this must have seemed like a miracle!
D'Herelle and his team travelled all over the world, setting up phage
therapy trials by observing who recovered naturally from various
diseases and isolating the phages to be grown on in labs. The initial
enthusiasm was, forgive the pun, infectious! The American drug
company Eli Lilly, amongs others who sensed a Gold Rush and wanted
to be in the vanguard, became involved in the 1930s. However, the basic
science was patchy and not enough was known about the therapeutic
action; why did some people recover and others did not? Quality of
preparations was poor, there were few controls or regard to testing
phages for suitability to deal with a disease, or indeed if the phage
was active before being administered!
Due to its erratic performance, phage therapy was slated by the
American Medical Association in 1934 and, with the discovery of the
wonder-drug antibiotics, phage therapy fizzled out in the West to be
replaced by antibiotics, which seemed to be the answer to prayers.
Antibiotics were even sold over the counter in the early days as
of bacterial resistance were dismissed as scare-mongering. Nothing
be allowed to get in the way of corporate profits. Besides, where was
in it? Little did they know....
PHAGE WORK CONTINUES IN USSR.
Giorgi Eliava, a scientist from Georgia, worked with d'Herelle for 5 years
and returned to his homneland to start a bacteriological research
institute, with the blessing (and funding) of fellow Georgian, Joseph
Stalin. D'Herelle himself left Yale University in 1933 to come and work in
Georgia, much to the delight of the Soviets, who saw this as a political
coup for the Soviet system against the expensive, capitalistic Western
drug companies and their monopolistic patents. However, disaster struck
the Institute when Eliava fell foul of Beria, boss of the dreaded KGB, who
had him executed. Some say it was because Eliava went over Beria's
head when refused phage funding, others say it was because they
shared a common love interest. We can never be sure - those were
turbulent times and personal rivalries often resulted in imprisonment in the
Gulags and almost certain death; the lucky ones were executed
immediately after their "show" trial.
Although the Institute foundered briefly, following Eliava's death, it
eventually recovered, due to the selfless work done by dedicated staff,
with very little pay who believed in what they were doing, to continue
researching and producing phage tablets by the million, mainly for the
Soviet army. The tablets overcame the practical limitations of the original
fragile glass vials. During the Soviet period, money was no object at the
Eliava Institute however, after 1996, when Gorbachev started
'Peristroika', funding dried up. The Georgians were on their own, having
their own political problems to contend with; during the civil war in
Abkhazia, Georgian soldiers carried sprays of aphages for application to
battlefield wounds, resulting in relatively few deaths by infection.
THE GLIMMER OF HOPE....
With the ever increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, although
doctors had known about this as far back as the early 1940s, the West
started to search for alternatives; the hunted was fast becoming the
hunter! When antibiotics attempt to kill resistant strains of bacteria, all that
happens is that other non-resistant bacteria are killed instead, leaving the
clear for resistant types to thrive without competition. Friendly bacteria
in the body are killed, often weakening immune system, resulting in more
infection, resulting in more antibiotics, resulting in.......etc.
The old stories of mysterious viruses which only, killed bacteria were
re-investigated. People started to contact the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, the
capital city of Georgia where Felix d'Herelle had worked with Giorgi
Eliava to develop phage therapy, wanting to know more. Some came
with a genuine desire to help, others to plagiarise that knowledge and
take advantage of the Georgians' expertise, for free. Others however,
like Fred Bledsoe of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and musician Alfred Gertler,
had heard of the benefits of phage therapy and came simply to be cured
of life threatening MRSA, something that doctors, using current
medications, had not managed to do; the next step would have been
It now just remains to be seen which government is prepared to swallow
its pride, introduce new guidlines to encompass the unique way that
phage therapy works, and actually do something now to alleviate the
suffering of thousands of MRSA sufferers. Although more research is
always needed, that is no excuse for not using the experience and
knowledge gained by the Tbilisi experts.
The usual mantra trotted out by the establishment, about regulation etc.,
would be valid if we were talking about a relatively dangerous chemical,
an antibiotic. All drugs have side effects, because they interefere with
body's natural functions and rigorous testing weeds out the ones which
just too dangerous to unleash on people, because they contravene the
Hippocratic first principle of "First, do no harm". Having operated in
a culture for so many years of viewing all treatments as potentially
it must seem strange to the authorities to be asked to consider phage
with anything other than suspicion.
There are no laws written in stone that cannot be changed to suit
and the current political climate. All that is needed to bring hope to MRSA
at a stroke is to simply view phages in the same light as a live yoghurt
or beer with live yeast, both harmless and beneficial to humans/animals.
advertising is couched in conservative terms of 'may help improve
everyone knows that it does what it says on the box, and safely too!
The only difference between phage doctors in the former Soviet
the rest of the world is that when it comes to phage therapy, the former
what they're doing.
How much reinvention is enough? Someone with chronic,
will tell you the answer.
To MRSA page
Thomas Hausler's excellent book 'Viruses-v-Superbugs'
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