Feb 10, 2020
While on a bucket list trip to Egypt, Steffanie Strathdee’s husband Tom Patterson fell ill with what they first assumed to be food poisoning. They soon discovered it was much more serious.
Tom was diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones. The gallstones had blocked his biliary duct, which had caused an abscess the size of a small football to form in his abdomen. When the fluid inside the abscess was cultured, doctors found the “worst bacteria on the planet,” Acinetobacter baumannii. This bacteria, nicknamed Iraqibacter due to the veterans who have returned from the middle east with the superbug, is an organism that is very prone to acquiring antimicrobial resistance genes from other bacteria.
Tom was very ill. With the combination of pancreatitis and the superbug, his chance of survival was no more than 10%. Acinetobacter baumannii was only partially sensitive to three known antibiotics, and those were considered to be last chance therapies. He was treated with those drugs, but his bacteria resisted all of them.
Steffanie is an infectious disease epidemiologist, but felt blindsided by Tom’s diagnosis. Luckily, she had the right combination of knowledge, access to research, and willing medical and research professionals to try alternative therapies.
Her research led her to phage therapy. Bacteriophage therapy (phage therapy, for short), are viruses that have naturally evolved to attack bacteria. The perfect predator, they have been co-evolving with bacteria for 4 billion years. There are more than 10 million trillion trillion phages on earth and they are everywhere: in water, soil, and our bodies. Phage therapy has been a known treatment against bacteria for decades, but has been practiced more in the former Soviet Union since western countries started relying on penicillin and other antibiotics since the 1940’s. The challenge is to find the particular phage that is effective against the bacterial infection being treated.
You are going to love this story of love, determination, resourcefulness and triumph. Steffanie cured Tom’s illness with the help of three universities, the US Navy and researchers from across the world. What she discovered in the process is a super weapon against multidrug antimicrobial resistant diseases, which are expected to kill more than ten million people per year by 2050.
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