The laboratory, with its faded white walls and the smell of yeast in the air, seems an unlikely battleground for one of the most urgent fights facing modern medicine.
But the Eliava Institute – housed in a Stalin-era building overlooking the Mtkvari river in Tbilisi, Georgia – has come to global attention as antibiotic resistance increases and once treatable diseases are left without a ready cure.
The centre has been producing an alternative to antibiotics since the early Soviet period – tiny viruses called bacteriophages, or simply “phages,” that invade bacteria and multiply until they burst out and destroy their host.
Phages are the most abundant organisms on the planet and are used to treat bacterial diseases in humans on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
The therapy has been common in Georgia for almost a century but now hundreds of foreign patients are coming to Tbilisi every year for treatment. The majority are from mainland Europe but the centre also sees patients from the UK, US and Asia.
Is it just another false hope, an unregulated money making exercise? Or might phages really have a role to play in modern medicine, especially as antibiotics start to fail?