Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Curative “Sacred” Waters

Bookplate, Joseph Priestley, "Rushing Water", c. 1780

Another article by guest contributor Chandra Emani*

The faithful in many countries swear by them. Many a land has its share of what are known as “sacred” rivers. A drink of the water in them have mystically cured dreaded diseases.  But the story I have for you today is about one such river I grew up on. The River Ganges or Ganga Nadhi as it is known in India. Travel to India today and people revere the sacred waters known as Gangajal (“jal” in Hindi means “water”). Gangajal, I was told by my elders, gives you peace when you drink it and many a mythological story talk about drinking the waters literally bringing back the dead and cure many a disease. Being the skeptical biologist, I took this as a general eternal love people have for the waters of their land from which spring civilizations and culture. Everything changed when one fine day I was preparing to teach my recombinant DNA technology class at our university. The topic was of bacteriophages, the microbial forms I have been using in my research for the past decade. As always, I was collecting the scientific history to introduce the concepts and the story of the discovery of bacteriophage blew me away. And it involved the sacred waters of Ganga.

In 1896, when British still ruled India, a bacteriologist stationed in Delhi, Ernest Hanbury Hankin, wrote a paper for the Pasteur Institute Journal where he reported that the waters from the rivers Ganga and Yamuna (this river incidentally passes by the Taj Mahal) could cure cholera.  What he wrote in the paper was widely discussed at Oxford and Cambridge. Hankin’s remarkable observation was that even after boiling the waters, or passing them through porcelain filters, the waters from these rivers still retained a mysterious biological source that dissolved bacteria in the lab and stemmed the spread of cholera in the land. People who swore by the curative properties of the rivers unearthed recorded documents that showed that the Ganga water once reportedly cured leprosy, a fact that Hankin now recorded in his paper as completely believable. Hankin was not taken seriously simply because he was on the wrong side of science politics. He was a “vivisector” who “escaped to India”. Vivisection was the use of dissecting live animals for research, a practice scorned by the scientific elite of the times and Hankin was on the wrong side of the debate. So, his remarkable discovery languished in journals. A generation later, in 1915, another British bacteriologist Frederick Twort at the Brown institute in London rediscovered the mysterious bacterial killer. He was working on developing a smallpox vaccine from a bacteria found in the skin of calves and when he plated those bacteria in the lab, he observed that among the bacterial growth lawns in the plate, certain transparent glassy areas were seen clearly showing something killing and dissolving the bacteria. Across the ocean, French-Canadian microbiologist Felix D’Herelle independently discovered the same kind of mysterious biological source that “ate” bacteria according to him this time in a culture of dysentery bacteria. D’Herelle confirmed that the mysterious substance was in fact a virus and named it bacteriophage (“phage” in Greek means “eater”). The phenomenon was named “Twort-D’Herelle effect.” Both scientists acknowledged the record of the erstwhile Dr. Hankin and confirmed that what was found in the rivers Ganga and Yamuna was in fact the bacteriophage.  D’Herelle also recorded the remarkable case of a man affected with dysentery being cured by bacteriophages. The science behind the curative sacredness of Gangajal was complete.

In 1920s and 1930s, both the Soviet Republic of Georgia and United States widely used bacteriophages to treat bacterial infections especially in the army. This was called Phage therapy.
It did not catch on as medical trials were documented as inconclusive simply because of improper scientific methodology such as not including proper controls and also the lack of understanding the scientific concepts behind phage action. The subsequent years also saw the rise of antibiotics that were easy to make, store and prescribe and the phage therapy lost out. In the 1960s, phage biology was revived by a scientific trio of Max Delbruck, Alfred Hershey and Salvador Luria (Luria’s first research student was incidentally the legendary Jim Watson who discovered DNA). The scientists were working on phages at the legendary Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, the ground zero for DNA and molecular biological revolution. When they were working to unravel the molecular elements involved in bacteria, they chanced on bacterial cultures that suddenly showed mutations, the sudden changes seen in genes and DNA as if somebody accidentally broke a test tube while culturing the bacteria. After a long day at the lab, Luria was at a cafeteria when he saw players at a slot machine when a eureka moment chanced on him looking at the sudden wins of the slot machine players. The subsequent years saw the trio work out all the scientific basis of how phages work, the account of which Luria fondly recorded in his autobiography One Slot Machine, A Broken Test Tube. The mystery workings of phages is now complete, the feat that earned Luria, Delbruck and Hershey the Nobel Prize in 1969. In recent times, June 2009 saw clinical trials to use bacteriophage cocktails to treat infected venous leg ulcers in humans. Another clinical trial in the same year in Europe saw phage therapy on chronic ear infections. Several other trials are underway to see the efficacy of phage therapy on infected burns, antibiotic resistance and cystic fibrosis.

As for me, I will forever remember the day when I found out that the curative healing powers of Ganga and Yamuna did have a scientific basis, and the rivers were the first to witness a revolutionary discovery that led to a Nobel Prize and now throw open doors to medical revolutions. I now fully understand why they say “the best way to learn is to teach.”

*Chandra Emani is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Western Kentucky University-Owensboro. Apart from teaching introductory and advanced courses in molecular biology and Genetics and researching on utilizing plants to make useful products such as biofuels and anti-cancerous pharmaceuticals, he enjoys explaining science in simple words to his daughter and son. He can be reached at

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