A Stalin-era alternative to antibiotics, developed in Tbilisi, is seeing international patients with hard to treat infections visit the Georgian capital for relief. Jim Drury reports.
Marc Guillonneau undergoes bacteriophages treatment, in a desperate bid to overcome infections resulting from chronic Netherton's Syndrome. The rare disorder has caused the French 16-year-old various persistent, agonising, skin disorders. A recent Staphylococcal infection had mother Claire preparing for the worst. SOUNDBITE (French) CLAIRE GUILLONNEAU, MOTHER OF MARC, SAYING: "They told us six months ago that on two occasions the Staphylococcus had entered the bloodstream. We knew that we were about to lose him and that to treat him we needed to come to Georgia." In Georgia is the Eliava Institute where Marc's being sprayed with one of innumerable naturally occurring viruses called bacteriophages. Unlike antibiotics, individual phages attack single bacterial strains. If bacteria develops resistance to one phage, the scientists pick out another from their library. Phages' diversity and ability to evolve can stop bacteria developing resistance. The treatment was developed a century ago but abandoned in the west when antibiotics came to the fore. It remained popular in the old Soviet Union until its collapse in the early 1990s. SOUNDBITE (English) MZIA KUTATELADZE, DIRECTOR OF ELIAVA INSTITUTE OF BACTERIOPHAGES, SAYING: "After the invention of antibiotics the west forgot about phages….And Stalin, who was the head of this huge country, developed this phage research and application as a political alternative to the west to the antibiotics and it developed." Founder George Eliava's work didn't stop him from being killed in Stalin's purges, but his institute continues to thrive, with increased visitor numbers from across Europe. Marc Guillonneau's condition is improving. SOUNDBITE (French) CLAIRE GUILLONNEAU, MOTHER OF MARC, SAYING: "His skin was bright red and oozing. Now it's pink and nearly white. Marc can extend his legs, whereas before he was all curled up. He couldn't move or eat. But now everything's becoming normal." With the worrying global rise in antibiotic resistance, scientists are searching for new treatments. A European Commision funded phages trial on 220 patients, was launched in France, Belgium, and Switzerland last year. Though any phages product is unlikely to be approved in western Europe or the US until at least 2020.