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.
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.
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.
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
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, perseverance, and accumulated excellence. A team of Georgian scientists overcame an overwhelming array of obstacles in order to save this collection and the unique expertise it represents.
Having preserved a national treasure, Georgian scientists built a new commercial phage industry, which now produces phage preparations for "over-the-counter" sale in Georgia. Led by American businessman William B. McCall, Advanced Biophage Technologies International, LLC (ABTI) is striving to bring the benefits of Georgian phage technology to the world.