July 31, 2008

Renowned Science Facility Suffers In Post-Soviet Era

"Polio, yellow fever, typhus, encephalitis, smallpox, hepatitis and many other human diseases were eradicated thanks to tests on primates," reads the inscription on a tattered 1970s monument at Sukhumi's Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia province. 

At one time, the monument stood in testimony of Soviet scientific accomplishments, but it is now merely a shadow of the revolutionary center that helped conquer diseases such as polio and save thousands of lives during World War Two with penicillin treatments.

At its pinnacle, the institute housed 2,500 monkeys used in experimentation on the effects of aging as well as conditions such as leukemia, cancerous tumors and a wide variety of infectious diseases.

But after the breakup of the Soviet Union and a short but brutal separatist war in Abkhazia, many of the institute's brightest scientists gradually abandoned the coastal resort for the relative safety and stability of Russia.

Many still hold memories of the early 1990s, when Georgian troops waged war with separatists, and clashes took place in and around Sukhumi. Both sides engaged in looting, and the monkeys were taken away.   

"They drove in here on tanks. Armed looters took away all the young animals," Nina Rudi, chief animal technician at the institute, told Reuters.  Rudi has worked there for more than two decades.

"Many of the looters were boys wielding Kalashnikovs," added Nina Roman, another employee.

"Some would later bring dying monkeys back," she told Reuters.

It was a much different scene from the institute's peak, when academics, cosmonauts and statesmen routinely socialized with visiting tourists. 

The arrival of two olive baboons and chimpanzees in 1927, the only survivors from a batch of primates sent from a Pacific island. They thrived in Sukhumi's sub-tropical climate, and were soon joined by scores of primates from China, India, Africa and Southeast Asia.

"Back in 1927, this was the only center of its kind in the world," Rudi said.

"Monkeys and apes are close to humans, but at that time they were still poorly studied."

Zinaida Yermolyeva arrived during World War Two to test the first Soviet penicillin on monkeys.   The penicillin was subsequently sent to the front lines, saving the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers.

"And in the 1950-60s, a powerful vaccine against polio was produced and tested here together with scientists from the United States," said Roman.

Monkeys were also pioneers in the Soviet space program, reaching space long before humans.  Even during the 1980s, the monkey colony was part of the Soviet space program.   A photograph of one such "space explorer", a macaque named Yerosha, remains today in the institute's tiny museum.  The name is inscribed on a white cap, which covered painful electrodes implanted into the monkey's brain.

For the remaining institute staff, the groundbreaking discoveries of the Soviet era are a distant memory.   And the institute now faces an uncertain future in the aftermath of the separatist war that ended as Georgian troops were driven out of the province in the early 1990s.

Although the region now runs its own affairs, it is not recognized by any country and is vulnerable to an economic blockade by Georgia.  In Sukhumi, a busy resort during Soviet times, the toll of the fighting and the economic impact of the blockade can be seen everywhere.

Many of the colonial-style hotels and restaurants still lie in ruins, and seagulls, instead of people, are now the main visitors to the once-thriving seaport.   The area's oleanders, palms and magnolia trees are frequently pockmarked with bullets.

Of the 303 monkeys that remain at the institute, many are old and dying. The survivors mope about in empty enclosures, awaiting an occasional morsel from the 25,000 people who visited the institute last year.

Concerns of a new conflict have risen amid increasing tensions between Georgia and Abkhazia in recent months, further dwindling hopes of a rapid upturn for the area. 

Although unofficially supported by a wealthy Moscow, Abkhazia's cash-starved authorities cannot provide the financial support the institute needs to reinvigorate itself, forcing many of its more sophisticated programs to be suspended.  These days, the institute mainly conducts simpler, less costly experiments with the assistance of local medical students.

The dirty, cracked walls of the administrative building are in a state of disrepair, and faxes and e-mail are a luxury here. 

The potential of foreign grants are remote at best.

"We have heard there is some interest in investing in the institute, there have been a lot of promises, but unfortunately it has all remained empty talk," Rudi said.