Epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee and her husband, psychologist Tom Patterson, were vacationing in Egypt when Tom came down with what appeared to be a routine (if severe) case of food poisoning. Tom’s condition quickly deteriorated, and upon transfer to a hospital in Germany blood work revealed that he had contracted one of the most dangerous superbugs in the world, a condition that rendered modern standards of treatment useless. Following an emergency medevac to the medical center at UC San Diego, where both Steffanie and Tom worked, Tom suffered several episodes of septic shock and spent months in a coma.
An increasingly frantic Steffanie used her scientific training to research alternative solutions and stumbled upon “the perfect predator” in an all-but-forgotten treatment: bacteriophage therapy. Bacteriophage, or phage, treatment had fallen out of favor almost 100 years ago, largely due to the invention of antibiotics. Phages are naturally-occurring viruses capable of destroying even the most lethal bacteria, but in order to be effective they must be precisely matched to their prey. With the clock running down on Tom, Steffanie appealed to phage researchers worldwide. Working with allies that included the FDA, top university researchers, and a clandestine Navy biomedical center, a match was found; Tom was treated and made a remarkable recovery. Since then others have also been saved by this resurrected treatment.
The hard-won knowledge gained during Steffanie and Tom’s trial, and the alliances formed, helped to establish the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH) at UC San Diego, the first phage therapy center in North America.
Steffanie and Tom’s memoir of their ordeal, The Perfect Predator, is a love story as well as a propulsive medical thriller. Though often near despair as Tom’s condition progressively worsened, Steffanie refused to concede defeat. The book also serves as a warning and a call to action, as Steffanie points to the rise of multidrug-resistant bacteria as a direct result of our overuse of antibiotics, particularly in livestock. The superbug crisis has assumed global proportions, and Steffanie argues that while phage therapy has tremendous promise, we must also focus our collective attention on the source of the crisis in order to prevent more cases like her husband’s.