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The virus that could save millions of lives

In a small laboratory in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, scientists are testing a virus that helps neutralize antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The small Caucasus country pioneered research into a groundbreaking method to tackle the nightmare of antibiotic resistance. This condition has long been mentioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a global public health threat.

Resistance occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites change in a way that disables or reduces the effectiveness of drugs used to treat infections. The disease has the risk of aggravation, prolonged treatment time, expensive treatment costs, and possibly death.

Georgian scientists began using “bacteriophages” to treat the most serious cases. Among them was a Belgian woman who contracted a dangerous infection after the 2016 Brussels airport bombings.

After two years of unsuccessful antibiotic treatment, doctors found a phage virus from laboratories in Tbilisi. As a result, the woman recovered from the disease in three months.

“We use phages to kill harmful bacteria, treating patients when antibiotics have worn off,” said Dr. Mzia Kutateladze, from the Eliava Microbiology Institute.

Common infectious pathogens can also “kill a patient if they have developed resistance to antibiotics,” said Kutateladze. In such cases, phage virus therapy is one of the best alternatives.

This method has been known for a century, but was largely forgotten and discarded after antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 1930s.

Electron micrograph of virus entering cells.  Photo: National Geographic

Electron micrograph of virus entering cells. Photo: National Geographic

The father of this therapy is the Georgian scientist Giorgi Eliava. He worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris with French-Canadian microbiologist Felix d’Herelle.

After the WHO declared antibiotic resistance a global health threat, attention returned to therapy. Its greatest advantage is that it kills bacteria while leaving cells intact.

Recent research shows that superbugs could kill 10 million people a year, when antibiotic resistance due to overuse of antibiotics reaches its peak.

While drugs based on phage viruses cannot completely replace antibiotics, experts say their advantages are that they are cheap, have no side effects and do not harm organs or the good bacteria in the gut. intestine.

“We can produce six broad-spectrum phage viruses that cure many infectious diseases,” said Dr Lia Nadareishvili of the Eliava Institute.

However, in about 10% to 15% of patients, phage viruses have no effect. “We had to find a virus that was able to kill a specific strain of bacteria,” she said.

The phages, tailored to target rare infections, could be selected from the Eliava Microbiology Institute’s giant bank, Kutateladze said.

A 34-year-old American mechanical engineer with a chronic bacterial disease for 6 years was treated with this method. He said his condition improved after two weeks of treatment in Tbilisi.

He is one of hundreds of patients from around the world who come to Georgia each year for phage therapy. According to Kutateladze, as the stock of traditional antibiotics is dwindling, more clinical studies are needed for widespread licensing.

In 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved clinical studies using bacteria to treat secondary infections in Covid-19 patients. In addition to the therapeutic effect in medicine, phage viruses are also used to prevent food from going rancid, to protect crops and animals from harmful bacteria.

Thuc Linh (According to AFP)

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