Tom Patterson was dying in a US hospital from a massive bacterial infection he contracted while traveling in Egypt. Doctors gave him a forecast of days.
Fortunately, his wife, Stephanie Strathdee, turned out to be an infectious disease epidemiologist and was not going to give up searching for a needle in a haystack needed to cure him.
In 2016, Strathdy spent agonizing months on bedside duty at UC San Diego Hospital, where she served as Associate Dean for Global Health Science. “I had this conversation that no one ever wants to have with their loved one,” she recalls during a health and wellness event co-sponsored by CNN.
“I said, “Honey, we don’t have much time. I need to know if you want to live. I don’t even know if you can hear me, but if you can hear me and want to live, please squeeze my hand.” I waited and waited, and suddenly he squeezed me very hard.”
From that moment on, Strathdee was determined to find a cure, even if it meant turning the traditional treatment of the disease on its head.
After sifting through mountains of medical research, she finally found what gave her hope: phage treatments. Phages are naturally occurring viruses that literally eat bacteria.
Strathdy contacted a Tbilisi, Georgia researcher whose work she found online and learned that although the protocol is not universally accepted, long-term studies in the US and abroad have already shown that the treatment has shown promising efficacy in some cases.
However, with over 10 million trillion trillion unique phages on the planet, identifying the handful that fed on the Acinetobacter baumannii that afflicted Tom was a task akin to finding one tiny star in a vast galaxy.
Deadly superbug nicknamed irakibacter because wounded soldiers were sometimes infected with it in Iraq, and it ranks first on the list of dangerous pathogens of the World Health Organization. Undaunted, Strathdee quickly began making connections to provide Tom with the treatment he so desperately needed in order to survive.
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Help from Texas A&M, FDA and US Navy
Her first task was to ask the scientists to trace and purify the phage samples that fed on the particular strain of bacteria that killed Tom. Texas A&M University biochemist Ryland Young, who has been tracking phages for over four and a half decades, was eager to help. Soon, researchers from the US Navy also joined the mission.
Strathdee’s call for the FDA to expedite enforcement of a “compassionate use” order allowing doctors to implement experimental treatments was granted in record time. Less than three weeks later, Tom received his first intravenous dose of purified “phage cocktail” from the Texas A&M team. Seeing no adverse effects, he received a second intravenous dose, courtesy of the US Navy, two days later.
The miraculous results were just like an episode of House M.D. (except for the cranky Hugh Laurie character, of course). Shortly after the second injection of the phage, Tom, who had fallen into a coma, was able to raise his head and kiss his daughter’s hand.
A promising future for Phage
Tom Patterson is considered the first US patient with a systemic superbacterial infection to be successfully treated with intravenous phage therapy.
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Since Patterson’s recovery six years ago, along with Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, a distinguished infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Diego, who directed her husband’s treatment, Strathdy opened the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH), an institution that treats and counsels patients with drug-resistant infections.
While Schooley is set to begin clinical trials of phages on the insidious antibiotic-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria that have been linked to cystic fibrosis, Strathdy is also working on building a worldwide “phage library” in hopes of simplifying the process of finding, purifying and cataloging curated collections of infection-specific phages.
Although his battle with the superbug has lingering and sometimes debilitating consequences, Patterson currently lives a happy and productive life, for which both he and Strathdee are deeply grateful. “We are not complaining! I mean every day is a gift, right?” Strathdee told CNN. “People say, ‘Oh my God, all the planets should have lined up for this pair,’ and we know how lucky we are.”
(To learn more about this couple’s amazing story, read their memoir: The Perfect Predator: A scientist’s race to save her husband from a deadly superbug.)
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