In the News

FORT DETRICK, Md. — By the time word reached the U.S. Navy, the situation was dire. A man was dying. At most, he had a few weeks left. There was an experimental treatment that might help — and one of the biggest stashes in the country was kept here, behind the checkpoints of a military base, in a lab directed by Lt. Commander Theron Hamilton. The patient’s family desperately wanted a few vials, but the Navy had never tested the stuff on people. What if it caused more harm than good? Would the Navy be liable? But what was a little liability when weighed against a human life?

Superbug. It sounds like the name of Ant-Man’s sidekick or a one-hit wonder English rock band from the 1970s. But superbugs might just pose the greatest threat to humanity outside of killer asteroids, invading aliens, secret Nazi bases in Antarctica or the latest YouTube social media challenge for kids. Seriously, though, the rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes might be reason enough to trade that bunker filled with a year’s worth of cocktail weenies for a “boy in the plastic bubble” containment system to save yourself from the next deadly infection outbreak.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bacteriophages, viruses that attack bacteria, may offer a life-saving alternative for multidrug-resistant bacterial infections that cannot be treated with available antibiotics, speakers said here. Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, of the University of California San Diego (UCSD), told the dramatic tale of how she and a team of collaborators -- largely working by trial and error -- brought her husband back from the brink of death with phage therapy, an approach that is making a comeback in an era of increased antibiotic resistance.

The closing plenary at the 2018 annual ID Week 2018, held in San Francisco, California, took a decidedly personal turn in addressing the re-emergence of phage therapy to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. The panel of presenters included Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, department of medicine, University of California San Diego (UCSD), and her husband Thomas Patterson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD.

The married professors were spending their Thanksgiving holiday in Egypt when the husband, Thomas L. Patterson, Ph.D., got very sick very quickly, experiencing fever, nausea and a racing heartbeat. By the time Patterson was accurately diagnosed with a highly multi-drug resistant bacterial infection, he was near death. His wife, Steffanie Strathdee, Ph.D., promised to "leave no stone unturned.'" What happened next is the ultimate infectious disease feel good story.

Peter Knox has been attempting to get rid of the bacteria attacking his body for the past sixteen years. In spite of going through a double lung transplant and a “too large to count” roster of antibiotics, Knox is still plagued with fighting the same infection that he first encountered in his childhood. "I first developed the bacteria attacking my body when I was ten years old,” Knox told i. Over the next sixteen and a bit years that bacteria has slowly attacked my lungs and tried to kill me.”

The low point for Patti Swearingen came one morning last December. She woke up, picked up her iPhone and was too dizzy to be able to tell the time. For more than five years, Swearingen, 60, of Rowlett, had been on and off antibiotics, battling an infection that kept coming back. At first, it was the bacteria that made her ill. Now it was the drugs themselves she couldn’t tolerate. They made her vomit, gave her migraines, sapped her energy and caused vertigo. Worst of all, her symptoms kept her from doing the things she cherished: making breakfast for her husband, checking on her 86-year-old mother, making plans to visit her grandchildren.

Advances in DNA sequencing and AI could make the idea a more practical treatment option. Patients in danger of dying from uncontrollable bacterial infections could find new allies: killer viruses known as phages. Armed with advances in DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence, a few startups are turning these natural enemies of bacteria into promising alternatives to antibiotics.