The Current

How this couple used a bacteria-fighting virus to thwart a deadly superbug

Steffanie Strathdee and her husband Tom Patterson have written a book to spread awareness of the surprising, experimental treatment that saved Patterson's life: a bacteria-fighting virus known as a phage.

Steffanie Strathdee and Tom Patterson tell the story of his survival in their new book The Perfect Predator

Tom Patterson is holding a picture of the deadly superbug that nearly killed him. Steffanie Strathdee is holding a picture of the phage virus that ended up saving his life. (Hachette Book Group Canada)

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Steffanie Strathdee and her husband Tom Patterson were on the trip of a lifetime to Egypt in 2015 when Patterson fell ill from powerful bacteria known as Acinetobacter baumannii.

"I was in and out of a coma. I was hallucinating," Patterson told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Patterson was transported from Egypt to a hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. He was later moved to a hospital at the University of California San Diego's School of Medicine, where he and his wife are both professors.

It was only with the treatment of bacteriophages, a type of virus that attacks bacteria, that he was able to recover. Interest in phage therapy has been rekindled largely due to the growing prominence of antibiotics-resistant superbugs — including the bug that held Patterson halfway through death's door.

Steffanie Strathdee and Tom Patterson hope their book, The Perfect Predator, will spread awareness of the treatment that saved Patterson's life. (Hachette Book Group Canada)

The couple has since chronicled the surprising, experimental treatment that saved Patterson's life in their new memoir The Perfect Predator: A Scientist's Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug.

According to Strathdee, a Canadian epidemiologist who specialized in HIV research, her husband was the first person in the U.S. to have intravenous phage therapy to treat a superbug infection.

She recalled an emotional moment when she found herself confronting the likelihood that her husband may not survive. 

"I said, Honey, I know that you're very tired, and you've been fighting this a long time, and it's OK if you want to let go. But I want to grow old with you. And I love you so much. And if you want to live, please tell me by squeezing my hand," she told Tremonti, raw emotions still present in her voice.

After an incredibly tense minute, Patterson squeezed Strathdee's hand.

"My fist pumped the air, and I said, 'Oh, great!' And then I thought, 'Oh, shit. What am I going to do now?"

'Pinko commie science'

Antibiotic treatment wasn't getting anywhere. In her desperation, Strathdee turned to several alternative therapies, including a "healer" and "an intuitive counsellor who was a psychic."

Eventually, she came across a paper detailing phage therapy, which first gained prominence in the early 20th century.

French-Canadian microbiologist Félix d'Hérelle was one of its earliest innovators and proponents. Phage therapy was widely used until the development of penicillin largely supplanted it in the West, but its use continued in Eastern Europe.

Dr. Robert Schooley and Dr. Randy Taplitz successfully administered phage therapy to Tom Patterson at the University of California San Diego. (University of California San Diego )

"Russia was an enemy of the West and as a result of that if you were a proponent of phage therapy, you were supporting what was called pinko commie science," explained Strathdee.

"And so that geopolitical bias was a cloud over phage therapy for many decades."

Medical crowdsourcing​

Colleagues in the medical community pitched in to find the right phages that might help Patterson. Researchers from Texas, Belgium, India, Switzerland and more all contributed to the search.

Patterson's medical team ultimately sourced phages from the U.S. Navy Medical Center, Texas A&M University and a U.S. biotech firm. Some of those phages were actually taken directly from sewage.

"Bacteria are very common in sewage and barnyard waste in ponds and things like that. That's actually the best place to find what preys upon them, which is the bacteriophage," explained Strathdee.

After multiple injections and three days of phage therapy, Patterson's infection started to clear and he came out of his coma.

Life is incredibly sweet. The simplest things [like] a sip of ice water are so pleasurable you can't even imagine.- Tom Patterson

"That was the happiest day of my life," said Strathdee.

Patterson's story, perhaps ironically, went viral soon after — when his case was presented at the 100th anniversary of the discovery of bacteriophages in 2017.

The case has helped kickstart further research into modern phage therapy.

Today, Strathdee and Patterson are enjoying their second chance at life together.

"As you might well expect, and it might seem trite to say, but life is incredibly sweet," said Patterson. "The simplest things [like] a sip of ice water are so pleasurable you can't even imagine."

Strathdee and Patterson are shown vacationing in Egypt in late 2015, before he contracted a multidrug-resistant superbug and had to be medically evacuated. (Courtesy Steffanie Strathdee)

The couple is designing clinical trials in the hopes of developing FDA-approved phage treatment that could stand alongside more widely accepted antibiotics.

They've also secured seed funding from the University of California San Diego to open the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Theraputics (IPATH), which Strathdee calls "the first dedicated phage therapy center in North America." 

Strathdee says she hopes their book will help spread awareness of the therapy and help save lives of people who aren't plugged into medical and academic communities.

"I have my husband back. I started out with that one wish and it came true. But now, seeing the potential that this could help other people? It's a life-altering experience," she said.

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Produced by Alison Maseman.