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Meet the scientist who used a bacteria-fighting virus to save her husband when nothing else worked

Her story is one that might save countless lives from the increasing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Meet the scientist who used a bacteria-fighting virus to save her husband when nothing else worked
Cover Image Source: Facebook/Steffanie Strathdee

In February 2016, after months of watching her husband lose an exhausting fight against a deadly superbug infection, infectious disease epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee was told that he would not survive. Her husband, Tom Patterson, was too riddled with bacteria to live, according to his doctors. "And I have this conversation that nobody ever wants to have with their loved one," Strathdee told an audience at the health and wellness event Life Itself, according to CNN. "I said, 'Honey, we're running out of 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 you want to live, please squeeze my hand.'


"And I waited and waited," she continued. "And all of a sudden, he squeezed really hard. And I thought, 'Oh, great!' And then I'm thinking, 'Oh, crap! What am I going to do?'" It all began when Patterson was taken ill with terrible stomach cramps during a Thanksgiving trip on the Nile in 2015. He was rushed to Germany for treatment after a facility in Egypt failed to help his deteriorating symptoms. In Germany, doctors discovered a grapefruit-sized abdominal abscess packed with Acinetobacter baumannii, a vicious bacteria resistant to virtually all medications. Found in the sands of the Middle East, the bacteria was blasted into the wounds of American troops struck by roadside bombs during the Iraq War, earning the pathogen the label "Iraqibacter."


"Veterans would get shrapnel in their legs and bodies from IED explosions and were medevaced home to convalesce," Strathdee explained, referring to improvised explosive devices. "Unfortunately, they brought their superbug with them. Sadly, many of them survived the bomb blasts but died from this deadly bacterium." Acinetobacter baumannii now tops the World Health Organization's list of hazardous bacteria for which new antibiotics are desperately required. "It's something of a bacterial kleptomaniac. It's really good at stealing antimicrobial resistance genes from other bacteria," Strathdee said at the Life Itself event. "I started to realize that my husband was a lot sicker than I thought and that modern medicine had run out of antibiotics to treat him."


Not long after he first fell sick, Patterson was medevaced to the couple's hometown in San Diego, where he taught psychiatry and Strathdee was the assistant dean of global health sciences at the University of California, San Diego. "Tom was on a roller coaster—he'd get better for a few days, and then there would be a deterioration, and he would be very ill," said Dr. Robert "Chip" Schooley, a leading infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego who was a longtime friend and colleague. As weeks turned into months, "Tom began developing multi-organ failure. He was sick enough that we could lose him any day."


What Strathdee did after that reassuring hand squeeze from her husband was nothing short of extraordinary. First, she discovered an obscure treatment that gave her a ray of hope: battling superbugs with phages, viruses designed by nature to consume bacteria. She learned that phage treatment was well established in former Soviet bloc countries but had been discounted long ago as "fringe science" in the West. "Phages are everywhere. There's 10 million trillion trillion—that's 10 to the power of 31—phages that are thought to be on the planet," Strathdee said. "They're in soil, they're in water, in our oceans and in our bodies, where they are the gatekeepers that keep our bacterial numbers in check. But you have to find the right phage to kill the bacterium that is causing the trouble."


Then Strathdee persuaded phage experts all around the country to sift through molecular haystacks of sewage, bogs, ponds, boat bilge, and other excellent breeding habitats for bacteria and their viral adversaries. "You know the word persuasive? There's nobody as persuasive as Steffanie," said biochemist Ryland Young, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics who runs the lab at Texas A&M University's Center for Phage Technology. "We just dropped everything. No exaggeration, people were literally working 24/7, screening 100 different environmental samples to find just a couple of new phages."


They took on the incredibly challenging goal of identifying a small number of precisely distinct phages capable of combating a specific type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that was practically eating Patterson alive. Next, the US Food and Drug Administration had to approve this unproven concoction and scientists had to purify it so that it wasn't lethal. Since phage therapy has not undergone clinical trials in the United States, each case of "compassionate use" required a good deal of documentation—a time consuming process. Fortunately, the woman who answered the phone at the FDA said, "'No problem. This is what you need, and we can arrange that,'" Schooley recalled. "And then she tells me she has friends in the Navy that might be able to find some phages for us as well."


Scientists at the US Naval Medical Research Center soon "found a few phages that appeared to be active against the bacterium," said Strathdee. Around the same time, Young and his team also found four promising phages that ravaged Patterson's antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a test tube. Next came the hard part: figuring out how to separate the victorious phages from the soup of bacterial toxins left behind. "Both the Navy and Texas A&M got busy, and using different approaches figured out how to clean the phages to the point they could be given safely," said Schooley.

Despite all the odds, only three weeks after her husband's reassuring hand squeeze, Strathdee witnessed physicians intravenously inject the purified cocktail from Young's lab into her husband's body. 


"We started with the abscesses because we didn't know what would happen, and we didn't want to kill him," Schooley said. "We didn't see any negative side effects; in fact, Tom seemed to be stabilizing a bit, so we continued the therapy every two hours." Two days later, the Navy cocktail arrived and those phages were injected into Patterson's bloodstream to tackle the bacteria that had spread to the rest of his body. "We believe Tom was the first person to receive intravenous phage therapy to treat a systemic superbug infection in the US," Strathdee revealed. "And three days later, Tom lifted his head off the pillow out of a deep coma and kissed his daughter's hand. It was just miraculous."


Strathdee's tale is one of unwavering determination and incredible good fortune. It's also a narrative that might save countless lives from the increasing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs—perhaps even yours. "It's estimated that by 2050, 10 million people per year—that's one person every three seconds—is going to be dying from a superbug infection," Strathdee told the Life Itself audience. "We have been caught for the last 2 1/2 years in this terrible situation where viruses have been the bad guy. I'm here to tell you that the enemy of my enemy can be my friend. Viruses can be medicine." 


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