A Scientist Used Viruses To Save Her Husband’s Life From A Lethal Superbug

by Madonna Watts D'Souza

A Scientist Used Viruses To Save Her Husband’s Life From A Lethal Superbug

January 6, 2021

Scientist Steffanie Strathdee was left with a heartbreaking choice- whether to let her husband die or fight to save his life from a drug-resistant superbug. She chose the latter and saved her husband's life with the help of minute viruses.

In a world where antibiotics are hailed and immediately administered during a bacterial infection, a man was on the verge of death as antibiotics failed to cure him. A married couple was on a relaxing vacation in Africa when the husband contracted a disease. Thinking the symptoms would recede after a few days, the couple continued their vacation. However, a sinister organism had taken birth within him.

His condition turned worse, and despite all of the medications given, he showed no signs of recovery. His wife, Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, was left with a painful choice to let her other half die or try something to save him from the clutches of death. And she took it upon herself to treat him with an old method that saved not just her husband but science too.

scientist steffanie strathdee and husband tom patterson
Scientist Steffanie Strathdee and husband Tom Patterson

A Dream Vacation Turned Into a Traumatic Nightmare

One of the things on Steffanie Strathdee and Thomas Patterson’s bucket list was an adventurous vacation to Egypt. In November, the couple had a wonderful time in the nation. But on November 28, 2015, the couple was headed to a living nightmare. A romantic moonlit dinner soon made Patterson ill, but they dismissed his discomfort as mere food poisoning. But events took a turn for the worse.

According to Patterson, “We were cruising through the Nile on a ship. It was the last night of our stay, and we were in Luxor right across from the Valley of the Kings. We had a fabulous moonlit dinner and were looking forward to a beautiful day of exploring.

I woke up just overwhelmingly nauseous, sick, puking. I continued to do so all night long, and the next morning. A local doctor believed I could be treated simply by some meds and antibiotics. But I continued to become sicker.

- Thomas Patterson

This led the couple to travel to Munich, Germany, on a medical trip, where it was revealed that Patterson had passed a gallstone. “I didn’t know I had gallstones — I was asymptomatic. It had entered in my bile duct, and a big cyst had resulted from that- I had it for maybe a while. It was the size of a football at that time,” said Patterson.

Representational Picture of a Bacteriophage

Acinetobacter Baumannii- the Bacteria

After testing the fluid accumulated in his body, doctors discovered that Patterson was battling a lethal disease. A superbug had infected him. Patterson recalled this event and said: “They tested this fluid and discovered that I had this very deadly infection. I was on med-evac (had a medical vacation) back to San Diego, California, on December 14.”

“The gallstone generated this abscess before we started for Egypt. But the superbug was genetically modified and was identified as an Egyptian strain. So his body was a host for this superbug that found a lovely home inside this walled-off abscess where it could multiply under the radar.” Patterson said.

Acinetobacter baumannii is a potent bacteria. In the last couple of decades, this bacterium was quickly killed by antibiotics. However, with time, the bacteria could steal genes from other bacteria. These genes made the bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and now these bacteria have become a fatal superbug.

Doctors tried their best to save Patterson, but there was no sign of success, and Stephanie was losing her husband to a superbug infection.

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Tom was near death on March 15, 2016, when doctors in California prepared to administer phage therapy for the first time. | CREDIT: COURTESY OF CARLY PATTERSON DEMENTO

Resorting to Bacteriophage Therapy

Stephanie knew that this was an Egyptian strain, which was quite rare in the Americas but abundant in the Middle East. Though they still don’t know where he contracted the infection from, Stephanie had to save Patterson. Recalling how difficult the time was,

Stephanie outlined, “It would sometimes get into his bloodstream so that he would develop sepsis or septic shock. There’s a 50 per cent death rate for each sequence, and Tom had seven cases of septic composure that we could count.”

He was incoherent, he was losing weight, and he couldn't keep anything down, so he was on a feeding tube. He lost 100 pounds throughout his condition of sickness. Right before we began the phage therapy, he was believed to be in hours of dying. After the doctors informed me that they'd run out of solutions, I went to the internet to look for alternative approaches. I found phage therapy was one option.

- Stephanie

Both Stephanie and Patterson were AIDS researchers. Her resort to a virus to help her seemed like the complete opposite of what she aimed to do. Nevertheless, she went to search for the most effective phage. Bacteriophages are viruses, which are capable of infecting and destroying bacteria. Since they were discovered 100 years ago, their popularity surged in bacterial treatments.

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Steffanie Strathdee with husband Tom right before he was discharged. Courtesy: Twitter/Steffanie Strathdee

Will to Live- as Strong as the Consistent Efforts for It

Patterson’s condition had severely declined. He was in a coma and intense hallucinations, where he misinterpreted most of the surrounding voices and believed he was a snake. But Stephanie, in her event of immense misery, seeing her husband in such a feeble state, cried out to Patterson and asked him to squeeze her hand if he wanted to live.

“I wasn’t certain if he could hear me. His eyebrows were shivering that day, so I assumed maybe he could. I said, “Honey, I know you’re fighting hard, and you’re fatigued. It’s OK if you want to let go. But if you choose that you want to live, please squeeze my hand, and I’ll leave no rock unturned.”

“I waited about a minute, and all of a sudden, he squeezed my hand very hard. It seemed that in that period, he was trying to figure out how to squeeze. It wasn’t a matter of him not hearing me. The phage therapy began on March 15, 2016; he woke up on March 20.”

However, with the arrival of Penicillin, the phage therapy died out. But what if Penicillin failed? It was time to resurrect the phage therapy again. One drawback of the bacteriophages is that they are incredibly picky when infecting a type of bacteria. Stephanie said, “I contacted the chief of infectious diseases at our university hospital. He said, “If you can look for and phages that match Tom’s bacterial infection, I will connect with the FDA and get approval to use them for compassionate treatment.”

“In February 2016, I sought serious help, and an expert from Texas A&M retorted. We sent him Tom’s bacterial culture, and he tested for phages in his lab that matched it. He also looked at environmental samples, which primarily meant sewage because wherever you find many bacteria, you can find the phages that prey there. Fortunately, they were able to identify four phages that disrupted his bacteria. Colleagues from the navy also determined phages that matched Tom’s bacteria and agreed to help.”

steffanie strathdee and tom patterson
Tom Patterson and Steffanie Strathdee. Courtesy: David Walter Banks

End is Well

Stephanie’s pains and strides finally paid off, and she was able to snatch Patterson out from the clutches of death within five days! The bacteriophages successfully destroyed most of the Acinetobacter baumannii bacteria, and Patterson was finally discharged after battling the infection for nine whole months.

“I went through a lot of rehabilitation to get back the muscle strength. I had to learn to talk, to swallow. I was in an aiding apparatus like a wheelchair for a while. We had PTSD,” expressed Patterson.

As many bacteria are slowly evolving to turn resistant to antibiotics, researchers find it difficult to control and invent more antibiotics. However, nature’s very own gift of bacteriophages can once again help doctors and scientists battle out bacteria in the most effective way possible.

With the growing army of superbugs globally, scientists and doctors need to equip themselves with a minute army of bacteriophages. If a spoonful of the COVID-19 virus was enough to cause a global uproar, imagine a spoonful of bacteriophages can control how many superbugs?


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