Virus from sewage saves man with bacterial infection

Posted at 7:32 PM, Apr 25, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-25 22:32:51-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A virus plucked from sewage saved the life of a San Diegan who nearly died from a bacterial infection he caught while on vacation.

Tom Patterson and his wife Steffanie Strathdee, both married professors at UC San Diego, were on vacation in Egypt during the Thanksgiving holiday two years ago when Tom got sick. 

"We thought I had food poisoning. But the food poisoning just kept getting worse,” said Patterson.

It wasn't until Pattern was medivaced to Germany that it became clear just how serious it was. 

"In Germany, they discovered that I had a big pseudocyst a large infection in my gut. And identified a bacterial infection that's rated number one in the world," said Patterson.

It's called Acinetobacter.

Doctors treated Patterson with antibiotics but after no major improvements, he flew back to San Diego and was hospitalized at UCSD's Thornton Hospital just before Christmas. Again, antibiotics didn't help. He slipped into a coma for four months. He was dying. 

“I held his hand and I said "Honey, I know you're really tired, but if you want to keep fighting and you want me to pursue some unconventional therapies, could you squeeze my hand,” said Patterson’s wife Steffanie Strathdee. "And he squeezed my hand. And I knew I would leave no stone unturned."

 Strathdee learned about bacterial phages. Phages are found in our bodies and they get excreted out into the environment. They can attack bacteria.  At the same time, Strathdee got a call from a friend at UC San Francisco who knew of a patient who got cured of a superbug infection using phage therapy.

It was Patterson's only chance so Strathdee reached out to the head of UCSD's Division of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Robert Schooley. Together with the help of scientists around the world, she went on a global phage hunt.

"We found Phages that were derived from sewage and were purified and injected into him and they saved his life,” said Strathdee. 

 Within 48 hours, Patterson woke up.

 "If there had been phages available from the start, we wouldn't have had to wait until I was on death's door,” said Patterson. 

The therapy is an experimental, unproven cure. Patterson and his doctor at UCSD are hopeful it’ll one day help millions of people. 

"Although there's a lot of research to be done, I think there's going to be a lot of clinical approach to therapy would be very beneficial to patients,” said Dr. Schooley.

It’s ironic that Patterson and Strathdee, both AIDS researchers, found viruses to be their biggest ally in the fight against Patterson’s superbug.

 "Viruses are natural. We normally think of them as our enemy. Here, they can be used for treatment,” said Patterson. 

 They believe bacterial phages are the future of medicine.

 "We think it's the reason we were put on the planet,” added Strathdee.

Phage therapy originated in the early 1900s, but fell out of favor in most parts of the world once antibiotics became commonplace. 

“People in the West thought that antibiotics would be able to take care of our problems with bacterial infection,” said Dr. Schooley. 

But bacteria adapted. They evolved. And antibiotic resistance grew.

Phage therapy continued to be studied and tested throughout the 20th century in what is now Russia, Poland, and the Republic of Georgia, but trials were not controlled, randomized or blinded. While a few robust clinical trials in the 2000s have shown phage therapy to be generally safe, in all trials the phage cocktails were administered only topically on the skin or in the ear canal.

The particular bacteria that infected Patterson is a problem in hospitals and in the Middle East. Many injured soldiers have returned to the US with persistent infections.