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Giorgi and Felix: Phage therapy in Georgia (part 1)

Bacteriophages – viruses that infect bacteria – have been in the news  a lot  recently. In the age of growing antibiotic resistance, scientists have been recruiting these viruses to fight difficult bacterial infections. Yet bacteriophage or ‘phage’ therapy is almost as old as the word itself.

 

In 1917, the French-Canadian bacteriologist Felix d’Herelle discovered the spontaneous destruction of dysentery bacilli in a growing medium, and found that drops from this medium could destroy bacteria in other media, even after filtering through the finest filters that caught bacterial cells. D’Herelle named this odd phenomenon ‘bacteriophage’ (‘devouring of bacteria’) and speculated that a virus was behind it. Many bacteriologist disagreed, and the nature of bacteriophage was debated for decades, but d’Herelle and others tried to use the new phenomenon in medicine, and made phages against many pathogenic strains.

  Biological and political borders of Georgia & phage  

Until the 1940s, there were multiple attempts at phage therapy, and many companies in Europe and the US made and sold phage mixes. There was never a clear consensus that the therapy worked – these decades predate clinical trials as we now know them – and with the new availability of sulphur drugs and especially antibiotics, the demand for phages declined in most places. After WWII, some scientists in the US and East Germany persisted with phage therapy, but in one unexpected place it was put on a secure footing. The place was Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia, where what was then the Institute of Microbiology, Epidemiology and Bacteriophage survives today as the Eliava Institute.

 

Its founder Giorgi ‘Gogi’ Eliava (1892–1937) was a charismatic figure. Born in a family of a doctor, Eliava went off to study literature at the Odessa University (there were no universities in Georgia under the Russian imperial rule). He was expelled after the 1905 student protests during the first Russian revolution, but eventually ended up in Switzerland where he attended lectures in bacteriology at the University of Geneva. World War I interrupted his studies as he was stuck in Georgia, but after the war ended and Georgia declared Independence, he went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris, a key site for global bacteriology, and began working with d’Herelle. Rather than stay in France, he chose to return to Georgia, where he felt his skills were acutely needed. On his return, Eliava first headed a military bacteriological laboratory in Trabzon, and then the new bacteriological institute in Tbilisi. When the Red Army invaded in 1921 and Georgia became Soviet, Eliava kept his position.

Through the 1920s, Eliava developed his institute and phage research within it. He did not publish much – neither did d’Herelle – but his role as a scientific administrator and manager was crucial. He went to the Institute Pasteur again in 1925–6, where he pursued more research with d’Herelle, but also secured crucial reagents and equipment. As an extra extravagance, he also smuggled some Chanel No. 5 for the numerous women working at his institute by sealing it inside ampules.

  Institute worker & possible Chanel recipient  

Back in Tbilisi, Eliava was at the centre of the small city’s cultural life. He was friends with leading Georgian poets and engineers, such as Paolo Iashvili and Volodia Jikia. His wife was a Polish-Jewish operatic soprano Amelia Wohl-Lewicka, who was the star of Tbilisi Opera. He adopted her daughter Ganna from previous marriage, treating her as his own and going as far as forging her birth certificate to have him as her father. It is from Ganna’s recollections that we know much about his life. 

 

In 1933 and 1934, Felix d’Herelle himself visited Georgia for two winters, after leaving a job at Yale where he had felt stifled and alienated. The USSR welcomed him with open arms, and he was even offered to head an institute in Moscow. He wrote his new monograph, Bacteirophage and the Phenomenon of Recovery, in Georgia. It was published in 1935, in Russian and Georgian, in Eliava’s translations, before the French edition was printed three years later. While not necessarily a communist, d’Herelle had clear socialist leanings, even though his life in Georgia was luxurious by local standards. Eliava was a gracious host, but it sounds like the two had a clashing sense of humour. In one story told by Ganna Eliava, her father dressed up in his wife’s old stage dresses and proceeded to start a conversation with d’Herelle, who was annoyed by the strange woman talking to him, and unimpressed when he got the joke.  

  Amelia Wohl-Lewicka  

D’Herelle’s visit was more than a regular collaboration, however. For Eliava, this was an opportunity to secure stronger support for his research and phage therapy. He envisioned a new All-Union ‘Bacteriophage’ Institute, with him as director and d’Herelle as consultant general. Eliava appealed to Lavrenti Beria for funds – the future murderous head of the NKVD was then the secretary of the Transcaucasian committee of the Communist Party, and allegedly there had been no love lost between the two. Beria did not oblige, but Eliava went above his head to Moscow, reaching out to the Georgian old-guard Bolsheviks, Sergo Ordzhonikidze  and Budu Mdivani , who helped secure funds from the Council of People’s Commissars. With a plan for a neoclassical institute building, a park and a large ‘French cottage’ for Eliava and d’Herelle’s families in what was then the outskirts of Tbilisi on the bank of Kura, the future looked bright...

  Eliava Institute; a bright future?  

I thank Gogi’s descendants, Natalia and Dimitry Devdariani, Nina Chanishvili at the Eliava Institute and the Archives of the Minsitry of Internal Affairs of Georgia for their assistance in researching this story

© 2023 by @Incidentallyb