Molecular biologist Dr. Mkhitar Mkrtchyan is on a mission. The 2018 Armenian National Science and Education Fund (ANSEF) grant recipient wants to help decrease the use of antibiotics by developing an alternative form of therapy to treat gastro-intestinal diseases.

Mkhitar’s project—officially named Development of Phage Therapy for Targeted Elimination of Multi-Drug Resistant Salmonella Circulating in Armenia—isolates bacteriophages that can be further used to treat salmonella. Unlike antibiotics, which harm not only disease-carrying bacteria but all bacteria located in specific areas of the body, bacteriophages kill only the bacteria specific to a disease or infection. Those bacteriophages then leave the human body once they kill all of their “enemy” bacteria.

This is the first time that such bacteriophages have been developed in Armenia. Team leader Mkhitar, 28, along with his partners, Dr. Karine Arakelyan, 69, and Mariam Poghosyan, 22, are one of the teams of young scientists who were awarded a $5,000 ANSEF grant in 2018, and they just received another grant for 2019. Thanks to this support, the team can continue to carry on their work in Armenia, and ultimately move toward contributing to innovation in the country.

The team members, all of whom work out of the Molecular Biology Institute of Armenia, have isolated bacteriophages from sources including natural basins, rivers and even sewage water, which they tested and characterized.

“As the principle of ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ goes, the bacteriophage is the enemy of infectious bacteria and friend to our bodies,” said Mkhitar, a junior researcher at the institute.

Since age four, Mkhitar wanted to be military doctor but wasn’t accepted into the military academy. He now considers that good fortune. “I entered into Yerevan State University’s Faculty of Biology. Only when I got close to starting my PhD did I find my real passion for science. I really love my job. It’s so interesting,” he said. Mkhitar’s team received the ANSEF grant after submitting their first application. “It was very pleasant yet strange feeling. This project was an opportunity not only for me to engage in this scientific research, but also a positive experience in research management.”

FAR’s ANSEF program is supported by various partners, including the Young Scientists Support Program which is sponsored by the Armenian President through the Youth Foundation of Armenia.