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San Diego Scientist Finds 'Perfect Predator' To Save Husband's Life

March 12, 2019 1:36 p.m.


Steffanie Strathdee, co-author, “The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug.”

Thomas Patterson, co-author, “The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug.”

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A scientists racing against time to save her husband he's dying from an antibiotic resistant superbug. The answer lies in a long forgotten therapy not used in modern American hospitals. It sounds like the plot to a fictional medical thriller but it happens to be the life experience of my next two guests Thomas Patterson's life was saved not by antibiotics but by the use of phage therapy. His partner in world travel and life Stephanie's stressed dee An epidemiologist turned to a Hail Mary experimental treatment and it worked.

They are both here to talk about their new memoir the perfect predator. As scientists race to save her husband from a deadly superbug Thomas Patterson and Stephanie's strategy welcome to you both. Thank you. Thanks for having us here. Tom where do you think you've picked up this antibiotic resistant infection.

Well I certainly picked it up in Egypt exactly where is unclear because it's everywhere these these particular bacteria so we'll never know exactly where I was in a clinic. Most of these kind of resistant bacteria are picked up in clinics or hospitals.

Now Stephanie the perfect predator in the book's title is not the superbug but a bacterial phage you describe as a virus that eats bacteria. How did you come to the idea that a bacterial phage could help cure your husband.

Well the doctors that were treating Tom at Thornton I see you here in San Diego had given up hope and they had said really you know there's nothing else that modern medicine can do. So when I asked him if he wanted to live and he squeezed my hand I took it upon myself to look into the literature and hit the Internet and put in words that anybody would put in that we're looking for alternative treatments. And I found a hundred year old forgotten cure phage therapy that vaguely rang a bell from my undergraduate days in microbiology back in the 1980s.

So let me just make it clear every kind of antibiotic that you tried to kill this particular infection was not working and you were really struggling to find something else that might work.

You write also that there is worse a sort of cosmic coincidences to tell us a little bit about that well and an amazing array of researchers and doctors and nurses and total strangers you know stepped up to the plate to save Tom's life. First there was the doctors at what is now the Jacob's Medical Center at UC San Diego just world class infectious disease doctors and they allowed us to try something that no other university hospital probably would have let us try. Which are viruses that would attack his bacteria. We also had the help from Texas say an M University researchers that didn't know me.

I didn't know them but I emailed them and sent them a picture of Tom lying in a coma and I said please help me. And even the Navy Medical Research Center in Frederick Maryland stepped up to the plate as well. And so we had two teams that were independently working on phage cocktails matched specifically to Tom's superbug.

Now this phage therapy is not exactly cutting edge I mean you found articles about it from the 1930s and 40s. How does it work.

Well bacteria phage are viruses that have naturally evolved to attack bacteria. So you can kind of think of them as nature's own alternative to antibiotics and they exist everywhere they're in soil and water they're in our guts. And so the best place to find them is actually in sewage and barn yards any place where you're going to find a lot of bacteria. And that sounds a little crazy but it worked.

And what I understand is that there are phage therapy centers in other parts of the world.

Why didn't it catch on as a treatment for infection here in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s phage therapy was actually quite popular in the Western world but it fell out of favor for a number of reasons first that penicillin came on the scene and it was thought to be a wonder drug. Indeed it was for a while and then also the discover a bacteria phage. Dr. Felix Darrel he was kind of a gnarly guy to work with and so he was ostracized from the scientific community. Finally phage therapy was taken up very vigorously in Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union and at the time World War 2 was on.

And if you were embracing phage therapy you were seen as a pinko commie sympathizer. And so some of these geopolitical reasons were just as important for the forgotten ness of phage therapy for decades.

Now Tom Stephanie tried to get a sign from you. She asked you to squeeze her hand if it was okay to try this therapy because you are at this point unconscious. You actually write in the book about the state of awareness. You were in. Will you read that section for us please.

Sure. Steph had asked me in a point where I was in a coma and I was hallucinating that I was a snake. And so here's a segment of the experience that I was having. The man and woman circle the snake on the bed. The man inserts a bronchial scope it's silvery segments slither into the snake's throat and within seconds it sucks out a glistening plug of mucus oxygen restored the cobwebs clear briefly from my eyes and I'm back in my body. A group of three doctors walk toward my terrarium their white coats flapping.

I pointed them vigorously. Steph laughs She knows I am urging her to join rounds where they will discuss my case like the specimen that I am part of going in and out of consciousness.

Tom reads from the book that Thomas Patterson and Stephanie's draftees have written called the perfect predator. Stephanie how did you find exactly the right phage that would attack Tom's infection.

Well I certainly can't take credit for that researchers that have been studying bacteria phage for most of their careers actually looked at environmental samples and samples they had in their phage libraries and used Tom's bacteria isolate that we shipped to them and looked for perfect matches. And the researcher at Texas S.M. said it's worse than looking for a needle in a haystack but we're going to try it and his lab found for bacteria phage that match times Islip within a matter of weeks. So from the moment that I emailed everybody for help. February 22nd to the day that we administered phage therapy for the first time.

It was March 15th of 2016. It was only three weeks that when you compare that to an antibiotic that takes 10 to 15 years to develop and 80 million dollars or more you can see why people are revisiting phage therapy as a potential answer to the superbug crisis and how quickly did it work. Well from the moment that we injected phage into his bloodstream on March 17th he woke up on the 20th lifted his head off the pillow and kissed his daughter's hand.

It was shocking to everybody in ICU and how has your road to recovery evolved you and Stephanie over the course of the nine months that I was in the hospital the rule of thumb is it's five times as long to recover as you were in the hospital so for me I'm three years out of the hospital and it's about four years to get completely over it. So there is the physical side where I'm now much much stronger and able. We just came back from Costa Rica and birdwatching and walking and having a great time.

So I can't complain there. It's better than being below ground but that's for darn sure the psychological side you know we both went through some therapy for PTSD. That's a really necessary part. And we continue to process the experience.

And Stephanie this experience marked a new beginning for you and phage therapy. Tell us about that at UC San Diego.

We have opened the first dedicated phage therapy center in North America called the Center for Innovative phage applications and therapeutics are eye path. We've treated six patients including Tom. We're actually going to be treating another patient today and the doctors that are involved have consulted on numerous cases internationally and it's really wakened up the infectious disease community of doctors to consider phage therapy as a potential alternative to antibiotics.

Now I've been speaking with Thomas Patterson and Stephanie's draftee co-authors of the memoir the perfect predator as scientists race to save her husband from a deadly superbug. They will both be speaking about the book tomorrow night at war Rick's in La Hoya and more information is on our website. K PBS dot org I want to thank you both so much. Thank you and congratulations. Thank you for having us.

Thanks. It's been a pleasure.

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