Revealed: our best hope to beat the killer `superbugs'

Scientists at a neglected lab in the former Soviet Union are leading the fight against a medical nightmare, writes Michael Church

AS BRITISH hospitals face an invasion of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs", the country's biggest scientific conference will be urged this week to pour research effort into a cure virtually unknown outside the former Soviet Union.

Dr Paul Barrow, one of the few British experts on phage therapy - microscopic viruses extracted from sewage, which can cure some of our most deadly diseases - will tell the British Association for the Advancement of Science that phages can solve many of the problems antibiotics have caused. The viruses attack the bacteria responsible for the diseases, and while the bacteria can evolve resistance to antibiotics, they cannot do so to phages: the viruses simply evolve along with them.

For the past half-century, almost the only research into phages has been done in a decrepit building in the war-torn capital of an impoverished former Soviet republic. Working conditions are primitive at the Bacteriophage Institute in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Nino Chanishvili's laboratory is a tiny attic which she shares with four other scientists. It's swelteringly hot, the floor tiles are loose, and the sink is an ancient bedroom washbasin, yet she insists: "We may be low-tech, but we are still doing sophisticated science."

Antibiotics once seemed the all-purpose answer to bacterial infections, but no more. Overuse has made bacteria increasingly resistant, and attention is turning once more to the studies of the Georgian researchers.

Dr James Soothill, a microbiologist at Manchester University who uses phages on burns, says a crisis is imminent. "It's always been possible to die from a surgical infection, but within 10 years many such infections may not be treatable by antibiotics," he said.

"When you're developing new treatments, you have to plan years ahead, because it takes years to get from research prototype to the marketable product. Phage therapy isn't the only alternative to antibiotics, but it has great promise."

Phages have unique advantages over antibiotics, according to Dr Soothill. "They replicate at the place in the body where you want them. They don't simultaneously kill most of the body's normal, helpful bacteria. And they can multiply from one to tens of billions in a mere five hours."

Phages can cure dysentery, septicaemias and some forms of meningitis, and have also been effective against epidemic cholera. "They are least effective," said Dr Barrow, a microbiologist at the Institute for Animal Health, "with diseases like tuberculosis, whose bacteria multiply inside the patient's cells." He stressed the importance of rigour in their evaluation, saying: "If the research is not done properly, the cause of phage medicine will be set back for another few decades, as it was after some ludicrously bad field studies in the Twenties. Those led to it being completely discredited in the West."

The Georgian institute's work couldn't be more topical. One of the infections its scientists are working on is staphylococcus aureus - the antibiotic- resistant bug now causing panic in the US. In the 1980s they developed an effective intravenous treatment for a less resistant form of this infection, and Dr Chanishvili's work is a continuation of that process.

She picks up a dish whose cloudy surface is dotted with clear spots. "Each spot is where one of our viruses has destroyed the bacteria of a new pathogen which affects people with suppressed immune systems. Don't touch!" But I have touched. "Now wash your hands. Twice!" I notice they are not wearing gloves - in Tbilisi such things are too precious for daily use.

The word bacteriophage, meaning "bacteria-eater", was coined in the 1920s by French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d'Herrelle who - while investigating an outbreak of dysentery in Paris - discovered that a surprising variety of infections could be cured with the aid of viruses extracted from raw sewage.

One-fortieth the size of bacteria, these viruses are found wherever bacteria thrive - in oceans, in our bodies, and above all in sewage. They look like extra-terrestrials, with large heads, narrow tails, and spidery legs; they inject their prey with their offspring, which multiply so fast that the host literally bursts.

The beauty of phages is that, unlike antibiotics, they mutate to keep pace with the bacteria they are programmed to destroy. Their limitation lies in the fact that each can act on only one specific host. No wonder they were upstaged in the West by antibiotics, which kill everything in their path.

But they weren't upstaged in the East. In 1923 the Georgian scientist George Eliava founded an institute in Tbilisi devoted to the ideas of D'Herrelle, an ardent Communist who settled in the Soviet Union at Stalin's invitation. Until the demise of Communism wiped out its market, and Georgia's civil war destroyed the local infrastructure, the institute researched new remedies and exported them to every corner of the Soviet empire. They were generally used as alternatives to antibiotics - as they still are in Tbilisi - but they were also often used in tandem.

With Georgia's economy in ruins, Dr Chanishvili and her woefully underpaid colleagues now face huge obstacles in their attempt to join the scientific mainstream. Two years ago they almost struck a deal with an American entrepreneur which might have lifted them out of their crippling poverty. She attributes the failure of that deal to a clash of cultures, saying: "We and the Americans still carried the Cold War in our heads. There was a wall between us, mistrust on both sides."

Her uncle, Teimuraz Chanishvili, the institute's director, shows off the "library" he and his staff have collected, where each phage is kept in a sealed bottle at a controlled temperature - at least in theory: in practice much of their collection was wiped out during Georgia's civil war by power cuts.

Thanks to contacts made through a BBC documentary, Dr Chanishvili has embarked on joint projects with British phage researchers investigating the campylobacter bug (food-borne, from poultry to humans), and the drug- resistant pseudomonas infection, which colonises the wounds caused by burns.

Dr Barrow is one of her collaborators. He thinks phages could offer the biggest medical breakthrough for decades. "But money would have to be committed to it. The institute next door to us has just put millions into a new vaccine research centre, but virtually nothing is being done to support research into phages. It's a crazy situation."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree were established in 1986....

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map