Instead, Diaz (not his real name) travelled to Georgia, a former Soviet state on the Black Sea, to undergo phage therapy, a medical treatment he says cleared up his infections within days and relieved him of the persistent fatigue, relentless coughing and breathlessness that plagued him for decades.
Phages or bacteriophages are viruses that naturally prey on bacteria by infecting and replicating within them until they burst out, killing their microbial host. There are billions of phages on Earth, and they have co-evolved with the bacteria they prey on for millennia, helping to keep their numbers in check.
Their therapeutic use was first pioneered in 1919 by Felix d’Herelle, a French-Canadian microbiologist who used phages to cure a boy suffering from severe dysentery. However, the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its subsequent commercial production by the 1940s unleashed the antibiotic era, effectively supplanting phage therapy.
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The therapeutic role of phages might have been all but forgotten if not for the collaboration between d’Herelle and George Eliava, a young Georgian scientist who had travelled to France in 1923. He had arrived with the aim of studying the development of vaccines but instead turned his attention to phages after meeting d’Herelle at the Pasteur Institute.
Eliava returned to Georgia and invited d’Herelle to help set up the world’s first research institute and therapeutic centre dedicated to bacteriophages, just as the country was being absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Sadly, like thousands of intellectuals of the time, Eliava fell foul of Josef Stalin’s regime and was executed in 1937. But Soviet patronage of the research and development of therapeutic phages continued at the institute Eliava founded, years after the Western world sidelined the approach.