Phage Therapy Renaissance-“Once Derided as an Idea for Cranks and Commies”

(p. C7) As engaging as it is expansive, “The Good Virus” describes the distinctive biology and murky history of bacteriophage (generally shortened to “phage”), a form of life that is remarkably abundant yet obscure enough to have been termed the “dark matter of biology.”

. . .

In a South London research institute in the early 1910s, the meticulous English bacteriologist Frederick Twort set out to grow the smallpox virus in petri dishes, hoping it could be “observed and studied like bacteria.” He succeeded in growing only contaminating bacteria, but within these colonies he noticed the occasional small clearing, as if something invisible was killing the bacteria. With the outbreak of World War I, Twort lost funding, closed his lab and published his results in 1915, cautiously suggesting that a virus could be the cause of the observed phenomenon. Few took notice.

Twort’s unlikely competitor would be Felix d’Herelle, a free-spirited Frenchman . . .

. . .

He found the same glassy spots that Twort had observed and (with noticeably less restraint) announced in 1917 that he had discovered a new form of life, which he called “bacteriophage.” D’Herelle went on to use phage to treat five sick boys successfully. But his “wild and abrasive style” (in Mr. Ireland’s words) antagonized his peers, who conspired to undermine him.

D’Herelle’s discoveries inspired many, including George Eliava, a microbiologist from the Soviet Union’s republic of Georgia. In 1936, he would establish the first institute (and still one of the few) devoted to bacteriophage research. Unfortunately for Eliava, he soon ran afoul of the Soviet secret police, who disappeared him in 1937. The institute continued to pursue the development of phage therapy and scored many victories—phage helped treat soldiers suffering from gangrene, for example. But there were also frustrating failures, in part because the phage weren’t adequately purified and often because they weren’t appropriately matched to the specific strain of infecting bacteria.

. . .

. . ., the “dubious and unreliable nature of commercial American phage products” in the 1930s, we learn, meant that “whether they worked for a particular patient was a complete lottery.”

During World War II, the West turned decisively to newly discovered penicillin, sharing the formula for it with the Soviets but not the methods of mass production. Thus the Soviets continued to rely on phage as the therapy of choice for bacterial infections. When a Soviet researcher tried to obtain production rights to penicillin in 1949, he was arrested by government authorities and died under interrogation, all for the crime of nizkopoklonstvo—adulation of the West.

. . .

Once “derided as an idea for cranks and commies,” Mr. Ireland writes, phage therapy seems to be enjoying a renaissance. Having been sustained for years by an idiosyncratic global community of true believers, phage-based medicines have now attracted the attention of high-powered biotechnologists and investors.

For the full review, see:

David A. Shaywitz. “The Enemy of My Enemy.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023): C7.

(Note: ellipses added. In the original, the Russian word nizkopoklonstvo is in italics.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 4, 2023, and has the title “‘The Good Virus’ Review: An Unlikely Healer.”)

The book under review is:

Ireland, Tom. The Good Virus: The Amazing Story and Forgotten Promise of the Phage. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2023.

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