A Deadly Superbug Launches a Medical Life-and-Death Drama

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. These highly resistant bacteria cause more than 750,000 deaths worldwide every year, a number that is predicted to rise dramatically. Although researchers are currently developing more than 550 vaccines for COVID-19, only 1 new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1984. One reason for this is simple: supply and demand. New antibiotics should be used extremely sparingly to prevent bacteria from evolving and growing immune to them. Thus, the potential market return may be too low to justify the necessary investment in research and development.

This medical conundrum takes center stage in The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug, a memoir by two scientists: Thomas Patterson, PhD, fighting for his life against an unknown superbug, and his wife, Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, who fought to save him.


Title: The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug

Authors: Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, and Thomas Patterson, PhD, with Teresa Barker

Publisher: Hachette Books

Publication Date: February 2019

Price: $25.95, hardcover, 352 pages

A Superbug Strikes Out of Nowhere

This story began during a much-anticipated vacation that spiraled into a nightmare. Two scientists from UC San Diego, Drs. Strathdee and Patterson, had worked as husband-and-wife AIDS researchers on the Mexico-U.S. border for more than a decade. They were seasoned travelers, having visited more than 50 countries, many times attending international conferences where they presented research findings. They were not strangers to adventure and mishap, fending off a rogue hippo in Zambia, surviving an earthquake in Peru, and narrowly missing a coup and revolution in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, Egypt was simply another experience for this couple with a passion for travel. It was going along perfectly, until they visited the Great Pyramids. Dr. Patterson went down a long tunnel leading to a sarcophagus and when he returned, his face was red and flush, and he was out of breath, unusual for the athletic, avid surfer.

His wife was concerned, but he brushed it off with typical nonchalance. The book just hit its inflection point and never slows as Dr. Patterson’s health rapidly declines toward death.

Dr. Strathdee writes: “That afternoon after we boarded the cruise ship that would take us on the last leg of the trip, Tom was evolving right before my eyes. Within seconds, he seemed a thousand years older, his face pale and drawn…. At dusk, we had a romantic dinner on the top deck under the stars. In the days and weeks ahead, I would come to refer to that meal as the Last Supper.”

Grim Prognosis

Dr. Patterson’s condition worsened, and he was medevacked to Frankfurt, where doctors discovered a pancreatic pseudocyst. The fluid was drained and cultured, finding that Dr. Patterson was infected with a multidrug-resistant strain of Acinetobacter baumannii, an often-deadly pathogen. When Dr. Patterson’s condition stabilized enough, he was airlifted from Germany to the intensive care unit (ICU) at Thornton Hospital at UC San Diego Health; there, it was discovered that the bacterium had become resistant to all the antibiotics he was being given.

When he finally began to recover, Dr. Patterson was moved from the ICU to the clinic. However, the day before he was scheduled for a long-term acute-care facility, an internal drain spilled bacteria into his abdomen and bloodstream, causing septic shock, sending him into a 2-month coma. He was dying.

Desperate to save her husband, Dr. Strathdee combed the literature, spending every waking hour examining novel approaches to resistant bacteria. From there, this page-turning memoir becomes nothing less than a medical thriller. When Dr. Strathdee comes across phage therapy—in short, using specific viruses to kill bacteria—she enlists the help of her friend and colleague, Robert “Chip” Schooley, MD, Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Dr. Schooley garnered the support of three research teams across the country. With emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, each research team provided phage strains to UC San Diego doctors to treat Dr. Patterson, with no guarantee of success. The dedication of these researchers and clinicians to save one life is awe-inspiring.

Rough Road to Recovery

The phage strains did work, but it wasn’t easy. The trip from death’s doorway to Dr. Patterson’s release from the hospital is a test of extreme love and stamina. The untested phage treatment had severe side effects, and there were multiple setbacks before Dr. Patterson, 100 lb lighter, was out of the woods. He would need intense physical therapy to regain his ability to walk and “feel parts of his brain coming back alive.”

What happened to Dr. Patterson could happen to anyone who acquires a multidrug-resistant bacterial infection. Bacteria are evolving much faster than our ability to develop new and effective antibiotics. The situation is becoming so dire that the World Health Organization has warned if nothing is done to alter this developing global threat, we could face a preantibiotic world again, in which any simple scratch could become a fatal infection.

This compelling book has one overriding message: When scientific advances, masterful medicine, and the will to live come together, the impossible become possible. The Perfect Predator, a fast and enthralling read with important messaging, is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post.