An Epidemiologist Uses Phage Therapy to Save her Husband from a Superbug Infection


Steffanie Strathdee and her husband Tom Patterson are both scientists who work at the University of California. On an innocent trip to Egypt were they spent a romantic night travelling down the Nile river enjoying a starlit dinner together, the night ended in an upsetting turn of events that would lead to Steffanie’s husband Tom fighting for his life. Steffanie, an infectious disease epidemiologist, had no idea that her husband would almost die from a superbug.

Superbugs are becoming a global threat. It is estimated that by 2050 a person will die from a superbug infection every three seconds.

On this night in Egypt, Tom became very ill and started to throw up and experience pain in his back. He was eventually taken to Frankfurt where doctors were able to determine that the initial issue was a gallbladder stone that became lodged in Tom’s biliary duct. He had an old infection called Acinetobacter baumannii.

Steffanie became very confused because as an undergrad student, she had studied this same organism on a petri dish with a simple pair of gloves. Back in 1980, this was considered a weak pathogen. Over the past few decades however, this bacteria has become one of the three most deadly pathogens that has learned how to resist antibiotics. New antibiotics are desperately needed for this pathogen.

Initially there were a few antibiotics helping Tom as he lay in the hospital, and he was flown back to the United States to San Diego where he would be closer to friends and family. However, now none of the antibiotics were helping Tom’s infection, and doctors decided to try and drain the infection out of his body. An unfortunate slip of one of the drains caused Tom to go into septic shock and he was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit.

During the course of nine months, his wife Steffanie was able to do detailed research with the help of people around the world to determine a mix of phages that kept her husband alive.

Phages, which are viruses specialized in targeting bacteria, were beginning to be researched as a cure for bacterial infections a century ago, but their discovery was overshadowed by the discovery of penicillin. Regardless, the mix of phages for Tom managed to get him stable again. PHD students, doctors, researchers, and scientists from all over managed to come together in different ways to help find this miracle mix of phages. Tom, who had been in a coma for months, finally woke up. Tom is currently three years into his anticipated four-year recovery and has had to relearn to walk, swallow and talk.

Tom says one of the most important things for him during his months long coma and even longer recovery has been community and having people visit. His son-in-law created a visitor’s schedule so that Tom is never alone at this hospital.

Before Steffanie began her long search for a cure for her husband’s superbug infection, she spoke to Tom when he was still comatose. She asked him to give her a sign if he wanted to live. She was overjoyed and when he gently squeezed her hand and that is when she knew the search for a cure for Tom would begin.

The couple has since started the Center for Innovative Phage Therapy and Therapeutics in San Diego, which is the first American center for phage therapy. One of their missions is to get the word out about letting people know the seriousness of finding solutions to antibiotic resistance.

Read more about the couple’s harrowing story here.  


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