When the Drug is Alive

Antimicrobial resistance is one of the most pressing global health issues of the 21st Century. In 2016, epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee was involved in a remarkable case where she and her colleagues revived a hundred year old forgotten cure – bacteriophage therapy – which saved her husband’s life from a deadly superbug infection.

Strathdee and her husband Tom Patterson were vacationing in Egypt when Tom came down with a stomach bug. Steffanie dosed Tom with an antibiotic and expected the discomfort to pass. Instead, his condition turned critical.

Local doctors at an Egyptian clinic, an emergency medevac team and then a German hospital failed to cure him. By the time Tom reached the world-class medical center at UC San Diego, where both he and Steffanie worked, bloodwork revealed why modern medicine was failing: Tom was fighting one of the most dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the world.

Frantic, Strathdee combed through research old and new and came across phage theory: the idea that the right virus, aka “the perfect predator,” can kill even the most lethal bacteria. Phage treatment had fallen out of favor almost 100 years ago, after antibiotic use went mainstream. Now, with time running out, she appealed to phage researchers all over the world for help and together they achieved a major medical breakthrough.

Since that experience, UC San Diego faculty have used intravenous phage therapy to successfully treat superbug infections in over a dozen other compassionate use cases, including the first use of a genetically modified phage cocktail. In 2018, the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH) was launched at UC San Diego, the first dedicated phage therapy center in North America.

In this presentation, Strathdee shares the details of her family’s story and discusses ethical issues related to treating bacterial infections with viruses, where the drug is ‘alive.’

Watch When the Drug is Alive: Treating Superbug Infections with Bacteriophage Therapy.

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