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The Phage Factor

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In 1919 d'Herelle isolated "phages", agents which were fatal to bacteria, and used them successfully to treat typhus in chickens, and dysentry in people. In 1939 electron microscopy confirmed them to be viruses.

Phage therapies began to be developed, but fell from favour in the West after the commercialization of antibiotics in the 1940s. But they are still used extensively in the countries of the former USSR and in eastern Europe.

d'Herelle had been invited in 1936 to co-found the Tbilisi Institute, Georgia (now the Georg Eliava Institute), and though he was associated with it only briefly it subsequently became the main world research and development centre for phage therapies. These have been applied to treating a large number of -itises (inflamations) and skin conditions, including chronic ones, and in post-operative care.

Phages have their attractions compared to antibiotics. The success rates are claimed to be comparable. As anti-microbial weapons, they are precision bombers, in comparison to antibiotics which tend to nuke everything. They have few if any side effects, and need only small doses to work. R&D is crucially not capital or IT intensive - the Tbilisi Institute would send for samples of river water to be hauled up in jars. With increasing antibiotic resistance stemming from their widespread use now beginning to cause problems, phage therapy is seen by proponents as an option.

Yet here, in drawing a parallel with Daniel Burd's ambition to see his discovery in large-scale use, the story of phage therapy gives pause for thought. Despite access now to decades of research, in the West funding for phage research continues to be scant. Potential investors have to square up to the gorilla that is intellectual and property rights in the legal/patents ring.

In addition regulators such as the FDA maintain that each and every phage of a therapeutic combination must separately pass scrutiny. But they clearly recognize that prescribing physicans have resorted to combination antibiotics at their discretion, and that administering a herbal remedy, regardless of efficacy, necessarily entails taking a cocktail of pharmacologically active ingredients. (Not to mention GM foods).

We note Daniel is an accomplished pianist with an interest in jazz improvisation, and hope that the comparison with Felix d'Herelle does not dissuade him from pursuing a scientific career. But if science's loss were to become music's gain then in 10 years time it may become clear that a different analogy should have been drawn here, one perhaps with Keith Jarrett.

So why haven't we heard of Daniel Burd?

Science and the consensus

The breakthrough first aired in the May 22, 2008 edition of the Ontario Record (audited circulation 6 months to March 31, 2006 of 73,852). It never made the BBC, which instead on June 1 chose to lead with the ban on thin plastic bags in China, a story it had covered in early January, when the People's Republic announced its intentions. A search of the online presence of the UK's national dailies for Daniel Burd also draws blanks.

Perhaps it is because Burd is not a tenured professor, and is not supported by a long list of citations and a vociferous "consensus". Indeed, he does not even have a graduate degree. He is only 16. On the other hand he has the imprimatur of science. One suspects the BBC of 2008 of being unable to pass up opportunity to broadcast to its home audience the message that it is too dilatory over saving the planet. ®

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