'You become desperate': Obscure therapy saves woman's life

SEATTLE - A local family got the worst possible news - an infection was taking over a young woman's body and she was close to death.

Willing to try anything, they turned to an obscure treatment from the former Soviet Union. And the result has changed her life.

The trouble started right after birth for Rachel George. She was born with a chromosome abnormality that affected nearly every aspect of her development.

There were many mental and physical disabilities to overcome.

"I think we spent the first 10 years expecting that she wasn't going to survive," says Rachel's mother, Rose George. "We were told she wouldn't walk. We were told she wouldn't talk."

But for Rachel, the biggest problem has always been bacterial infections.

"Kidney infections, urinary infections, heart infection, brain infection, bone infection. You name it, she's figured out a way to get it," says Rose.

Those infections make her a regular at the doctor's office and hospital.

The worst of it came about two years ago when two infections - MRSA and pseudomonas - settled in Rachel's lungs and wouldn't let go. They tried virtually every antibiotic available - but Rachel's infections were drug resistant.

Doctors prepared the family for Rachel's death.

"It's horrible. It's frightening and you become very desperate," says Rose. "At that point, the nurse that did the home visits said, 'Have you ever heard of phage therapy?'"

Phage therapy is not commonly used in the United States. "Phage" are naturally occurring viruses that can be put into the body to attack a specific bacteria. In the simplest terms, phage make the bacteria sick.

Dr. Elizabeth Kutter, a researcher at Evergreen State College in Olympia, says the phage won't attack anything else - just the problem bacteria.

"They can go find other bacteria just like that one and do the same thing and go all over the body and gradually kill all of that particular kind of bad bacteria," she says.

While it's routinely used in other countries, she says it never took off in the United States because it was overshadowed by the development of penicillin.

And Rachel's doctor says there needs to be more human studies to "prove" phage therapy really works.

"One of the reasons I said I think it's fine to go ahead and give it a try is it's not likely to be harmful, and she was in such a bad position that we were willing to try almost anything to help her get better," Dr. Emily Darby says.

"If you don't have a future and there's something out there that can't hurt, you say well let's give it a shot," says Rachel's mom.

Rachel's shot is custom-designed for her at a lab in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, where doctors have used phage therapy since the 1930s. The family orders the medication straight from that lab.

It's not covered by insurance, so the family pays as much as $800 for a three-month supply.

Skeptical at first, they are now firm believers.

"From the first phage treatment that we did, the MRSA disappeared. And we'd been battling MRSA for almost three years, at the point we started this. And it was gone," says Rose George.

The MRSA cleared up. Then the psuedomonas infection went away.

And Rachel changed.

"It's not just that Rachel's not getting as sick anymore. It's that she's thriving," says Rose. "Horseback riding, cheerleading, going to the mall, blowing kisses to guys ..."

When Rachel was born, her family didn't know how long they would have her. She is now 31 years old - and this month, she celebrated a remarkable anniversary.

With phage therapy, she's gone an entire year without being admitted to the hospital.

Rachel's family says she's not just surviving.

She's living.

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