George Eliava Institute
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The Tbilisi Institute, now called the George Eliava Institute of Bacteriophage, Microbiology and Virology (IBMV) has been active since the 1930s in the field of phage therapy, which is used to combat microbial infection (cf. antibiotic-resistant strains).
In the beginning...
The Institute in Tbilisi opened its doors in 1923, and was a bacteriology laboratory. Its founder, Prof. George Eliava, was not aware of bacteriophages until 1926. That year he became friendly with Felix d'Herelle during a visit to the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Eliava became excited over the possibilities of phage in the curing of bacterial disease, and invited d'Herelle to visit his laboratory in Georgia.
D'Herelle visited Tbilisi twice in 1934-35, and agreed to work with Prof. Eliava. It has been suggested the d'Herelle became enamored of the communist idea. In 1934, when Stalin invited him to the Institute in Tbilisi, he gladly accepted and worked there off and on for about a year - and even dedicated one of his books, "The Bacteriophage and the Phenomenon of Recovery," written and published in Tbilisi in 1935, to Comrade Stalin.
D'Herelle had even planned to take up permanent residence in Tbililsi and had already started to build a cottage on the grounds of the Institute (it would later house the KGB's Georgian headquarters).
However, the collaboration between these two great scientists was not to be. Around the time d'Herelle was to take up residence, George Eliava unfortunately became involved romantically with the woman that Lavrenti Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police, was also in love with. Eliava's fate was thus sealed, and he was summarily executed and denounced as an enemy of the people. It was said that D'Herelle ran for his life and never returned to Tbilisi. Another account noted that he was in Paris at the time of Eliava's execution, and wisely decided not to return. Apparently, D'Herelle's book was also banned from distribution.
But the story continues....
In spite of this terrible development, the Institute did not change its practical specialization, and continued its activity in the field of bacteriophage research. In 1938, the Institute of Bacteriophage Research and the Institute of Microbiology & Epidemiology (founded separately in 1936) merged, and the Institute of Microbiology, Epidemiology and Bacteriophage was formed. It existed until 1951 and was authorized by the People's Commissary of Health of Georgia. After 1951, it came under the auspices of the All-Union Ministry of Health and was renamed The Institute of Vaccine and Sera.
Since its inception, the Institute was comprised of a combination of industrial and scientific (research) departments. In 1988 the Institute was rearranged again and emerged as the Scientific Industrial Union "Bacteriophage" (SIU "Bacteriophage"). Around that time, its scientific portion was renamed the George Eliava Research Institute of Bacteriophage.
Based on the original intentions of D'Herelle and Eliava, the Bacteriophage Institute retained its leadership among other institutes of similar profile over the years. Online sources note that for over 30 years up to the present day, the Academician Teimuraz Chanishvili has been the leader of the scientific part of the Institute.
"Beria had Eliava shot in 1937 on a pretext," Teimuraz is quoted online as saying matter-of-factly. "That's the way it was back then." He adds with a chuckle, "thankless work, bacteriophages!"
The effect of the Iron Curtain
When the Iron Curtain descended upon Eastern Europe, the Institute in Tbilisi became a general Soviet institute for the development and production of bacteriophage drugs, in the spirit of the work of d'Herelle and Eliava. Patients with serious infectious diseases came from all over the Soviet Union to receive treatments there, which were reportedly successful. Bacteriophages became a routine part of treatment in clinics and hospitals. Ointments for the skin, and pills, drops, and rinses consisting of phages were sold and are still sold at pharmacies throughout Eastern Europe at incredibly low prices. These therapies are very effective, completely harmless to humans, and are much cheaper than antibiotics. Further, much of this therapy is apparently available without a doctor's prescription.
As the world is well aware, the Soviet Union fell apart within 2 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In 1991, after the Republic of Georgia declined to join the Russian Federation and civil war broke out there, the Tbilisi facility was essentially ruined. The Eliava Institute's facilities were damaged and decades of research on bacteriophage nearly went down the drain. Thousands of bacteriophage samples identified over the years and cataloged in huge, refrigerated "libraries" suffered irreversible damage due to frequent electrical outages. Apparently, the Russians transferred some of the equipment to their territory and built plants for the production of bacteriophages in other locations. Clearly, they recognized the importance of the research and also that of continued bacteriophage therapy. The situation at the Eliava Institute continued to deteriorate until it was on the verge of closure.
However, in 1997, a report on the Institute was broadcast by the BBC, sparking a flurry of media interest in the West. The headlines drew doctors and scientists to Tbilisi - and also, most importantly, energetic entrepreneurs from around the world who were determined to help save the Institute and its stocks and fully explore the potential of this "new" and highly effective therapy. Georgian scientists whose names were connected in some way to the Institute saw great opportunity, and some of them emigrated to the West to be part of joint projects. Some of the Institute's projects with the rest of the world can be seen on the website of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, the umbrella entity which now includes the Eliava Institute. The URL is http://www.acnet.ge/virol.htm.
The George Eliava Institute is located at:
- 3, Gotua Street
- 380060, Tbilisi
Tel: +995 32 37 42 27 or +995 32 23 32 95 Fax: +995 32 99 91 53 or +995 32 22 19 65
A few of the companies who are or have been connected to the Eliava Institute and/or its phage research are as follows:
- Nature Publishing Group: www.nature.com/naturebiotechnology. Volume 22, No. 1, Jan. 2004, Old Dogma, New Tricks - 21st Century Phage Therapy, by Karl Thiel.
- Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA: Vol. 93, pp. 3167-3168, April 1996, Smaller fleas...ad infinitum: Therapeutic Bacteriophage Redux, by Joshua Lederberg, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Scholar at the Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021.
- The bactericidal action of the waters of the Jamuna and Ganga rivers on Cholera microbes, By M.E Hankin, Government Laboratory, Agra, India. Translated from the original article published in French, Ref. Ann. De l’ Inst. Pasteur 10.511 (1896).
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