Bacteriophages, viruses that could save millions of lives

published on Monday, April 04, 2022 at 9:29 p.m.

It may seem strange during a pandemic that has killed millions and turned the world upside down, but a certain type of virus, bacteriophages, could save so many lives.

Georgia, a small country in the Caucasus, is at the forefront of research on bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Long ignored in the West, bacteriophages, or bacteria-eating viruses, are now used in some difficult medical cases, like that of this Belgian woman who developed a life-threatening infection after being injured in the 2016 bombing in the Brussels airport.

After two years of ineffective antibiotic treatment, the bacteriophages sent from Georgia overcame his infection in three months.

“We use these phages that kill harmful bacteria” to treat patients when antibiotics fail, says Mzia Kutateladze of the Eliava Georgian Institute of Bacteriophages.

Even a trivial infection can “kill a patient because the pathogen has developed resistance to antibiotics,” adds Ms Kutateladze.

Phages, known for a century, had been largely forgotten when antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 1930s.

– Stalin’s henchman –

The man who contributed most to its development, the Georgian scientist George Eliava, was executed in 1937 on the orders of another Georgian, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s henchman and chief of his secret police.

Eliava had worked at the Institut Pasteur in Paris with French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle, one of the two men credited with discovering phages, and had persuaded Stalin to invite him to Tbilisi in 1934.

But their collaboration was cut short when Beria had Eliava killed, for a reason that remained a mystery.

With the World Health Organization declaring antimicrobial resistance a global health cause, phages, which can attack bacteria while leaving human cells intact, are making a comeback.

According to a recent study, superbugs could kill up to ten million people a year when antimicrobial resistance, due to overuse of antibiotics, reaches its peak, which could be 30 years from now.

Although phage-based drugs cannot completely replace antibiotics, the researchers point to the main advantages: low cost, no side effects, no damage to organs or intestinal flora.

“We produce six standard phages that have a broad spectrum (of use) and can cure multiple infectious diseases,” says Lia Nadareishvili, a doctor at the Eliava Institute.

However, in 10 to 15% of patients, standard phages do not work and “we must find phages capable of killing the bacterial strain in question,” he specifies.

Suitable phages for rare infections can be selected from the institute’s huge collection, the richest in the world, or found in contaminated sewage, water or soil, explains Ms Kutateladze.

The institute can even “train” the phages so that they “can kill more and more different harmful bacteria.” “It’s a cheap and easily accessible therapy,” she says.

A 34-year-old American mechanical engineer who has suffered from a chronic bacterial disease for six years told AFP that he “already felt an improvement” after two weeks at the Tbilisi institute.

– Definitive treatment –

“J’ai essayé tous les traitements possibles aux États-Unis”, declared Andrew, who n’a voulu donner que son prénom, et fait partie des centaines de patients du monde entier venant chaque année en Géorgie pour un traitement de la dernière luck.

Beyond medicine, phages are already used to keep food from spoiling and can be used in agriculture “to protect crops and animals from harmful bacteria,” says Kutateladze. The Eliava Institute has already carried out research on bacteria directed at cotton and rice.

Bacteriophages can also fight biological weapons or fight bioterrorism, as Canadian researchers published a study in 2017 on their use to counter an anthrax attack in crowded public places.

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