The Coast News Group
Tom Patterson, left, and his wife, Steffanie Strathdee, hold images of a superbug and phage after Patterson contracted the deadliest superbug in 2015 and survived from an alternative therapy using phages. Courtesy photo

In race against time, Carlsbad professors find superbug cure

CARLSBAD — It was a race against time and one local woman’s persistence and dogged pursuit saved her husband’s life.

Steffanie Strathdee, 53, spearheaded a rapid response to cure her husband, Tom Patterson, 72, from the deadliest superbug in the world. The cure came from a collaborative effort from Strathdee, the University California San Diego, San Diego State University, Texas A & M University, the U.S. Navy and the Federal Drug Administration and is being hailed as medical breakthrough.

The couple will detail their experience, book (“The Perfect Predator”), movie deal and media coverage at the Dove library on Sept. 26.

It began on a vacation to Egypt in November 2015 when Patterson, a professor in the psychiatry department at UCSD, suddenly became violently ill. Constant vomiting led them to a local clinic in Luxor and a CT scan revealed a small football-sized mass in his stomach.

“Both Stef and I thought I had food poisoning,” Patterson said. “They gave me antibiotics and fluids because they thought I was dehydrated. They didn’t have the wherewithal to take care of me.”

He was flown to Germany where doctors discovered it was a superbug known as acinetobacter baumannii, or Iraqibacter, as numerous soldiers fell ill and died as a result of the bacterial infection.

A gall stone was lodged in Patterson’s bile duct and caused the abscess. The stone was removed, but he was in and out of consciousness, while the results of the test revealed the superbug. Within two weeks, the bug was resistant to all antibiotics.

“From this point on, I’m pretty much out of it,” Patterson said. “I was dying essentially.”

The couple, though, had the foresight to purchase travel insurance, so seven ambulance rides and two Lear jet rides to get Patterson home cost just $38.

In January 2016, Patterson was flown to San Diego where Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences and professor at the UCSD School of Medicine, was told he didn’t have much time to live. Her husband was in and out of consciousness and five tubes, plus a feeding tube, where placed in his stomach to pump out the ooze of the infection.

However, a tube slipped out and sent Patterson into sepsis shock, but he was stabilized after being placed in a medically induced coma.

And because nowhere on Earth was a known cure, Strathdee began researching, quickly. She found an alternative weapon, known as phage (bacteriophage), which is a natural enemy and feeds on superbugs. However, the phage must be identically matched with its counterpart to be effective, or Patterson, or any other victim, would die.

And while his wife was researching and tracking down leads, Patterson was placed in a medically induced coma. The superbug spread and he was fully contaminated.

“He was 300 pounds before this …. he lost 100 pounds off his frame,” Strathdee said. “The doctors told me he wasn’t going to make it. I asked him if he wanted to live, and I knew we had a decision to make. His heart was failing, lungs were failing. I asked him to squeeze my hand if he wanted to live and about a minute later, he squeezed my hand.”

Strathdee was informed the FDA had no trials and any potential cures must include waivers. She discovered phage was used in by the Soviet Union and Poland, but due to geopolitical reasons, and the popularity of penicillin, the treatment was never considered in the West.

Undeterred, Strathdee charged forward and Texas A&M and Navy each found four phages and sent their phages to UCSD for an experimental treatment on March 16, 2016, with FDA approval. At SDSU, the team there worked for 36 hours to purify the phage samples to ready for treatment.

The results were positive and slowly Patterson recovered, although due to other issues, he remained in the hospital for six months.

One of the biggest benefits, Strathdee said, is phages have no side effects, unlike other medications. Phages go and attack its superbug and leave no trace.

“Nobody knew how to do this,” Strathdee said. “It was the scariest days of our lives. Phages are nature’s alternatives to antibiotics. They’re like tiny Pac-Men.”