SAN DIEGO, California – Two years ago, Steffanie Strathdee wasn't sure she'd get moments like this with her husband, Tom Patterson. He got an antibiotic-resistant bacteria when they were on vacation.
"They saw that he had this giant abscess in his abdomen, like the size of a football, and inside was this murky brown fluid that looked like it had been there for a while," she remembered.
Doctors drained the abscess with catheters but one moved, sending more infected fluid into Tom's body.
"He slipped into a coma. We couldn't wake him from. and slowly, he started to die."
Steffanie reached out to Dr. Robert Schooley at UC San Diego Health to find bacteriophages, viruses found in bacteria that kill bacteria.
Dr. Schooley calls them "living antibiotics".
"With phage, they only kill a small sliver of the bacteria of the given type and what you have to do is you have to take the bacteria a patient has, their own organism and then screen for phage that are active against their organism," he explained.
"He received the first phages on a Monday, the second set of phages on a Wednesday, and he woke up on Saturday," recalled Steffanie.
PHAGES: Phages try to kill bacteria, and unlike antibiotics, they grow in bacteria and multiply and then go kill the organism next door. Bacteriophages attack only their host bacteria, not human cells, so they are potentially good candidates to treat bacterial diseases in humans. After antibiotics were discovered, the phage approach was largely abandoned in many parts of the world. However, phages continued to be used for medical purposes in several countries, including Russia, Georgia, and Poland, where they remain in use today. There is increasing interest in bringing back the "phage approach" elsewhere, as antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more and more of a problem. (Source: https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/biology-of-viruses/virus-biology/a/bacteriophages).
Tom had been in hospitals for nine months and in a coma for two. He'd lost 100 pounds.
"I couldn't walk," he said. "I was in a wheelchair, and sitting up was beyond my ability for more than a moment."
Tom wants to be on the front line as phages are added to the fight against superbugs.
"I think it represents evidence-based hope."
If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at firstname.lastname@example.org or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at email@example.com.