Two years ago, while on vacation Egypt, Tom Patterson contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection and was on the brink of death until a team of experts, including those from University of California, San Diego, developed a cocktail of viruses that killed the infection.
Within days of receiving the drugs, Patterson — who is also a professor at the UCSD School of Medicine — woke up from a coma and fully recovered. He became the first person to be successfully treated with bacteriophages, viruses that specifically target and consume bacteria.
“It’s not like taking an antibiotic that makes you feel sick or anything,” Patterson told NBC 7. “It’s just nothing. You feel … you started to get well. It’s as simple as that.”
Since then five people have been treated with phages, four successfully.
“All of the patients tolerated phage therapy well without adverse effects,” UCSD School of Medicine Dr. Saima Aslam said. “Phage combinations were given by direct instillation into the infected site, intravenously and/or by inhaled routes.”
As sick as he was, Patterson said it was worth it if it meant that more people could be saved through this therapy.
“My case has started a landslide of other individuals getting phage therapy,” he said. “Though I was pretty damn miserable in my experience, it was worth it if it leads to the saving of any number of lives, thousands if not hundreds of thousands in the distant future.”
Encouraged by these early successes and with an estimated 10 million people expected to die from “superbug” infections by 2050, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla announced Thursday a three-year $1.2 million grant to help launch the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH).
The center is the first of its kind in North America.
“The story of how phages saved Tom’s life and have helped others, the tremendous depth of scientific knowledge and medical practice, combined with intuition, innovation and just sheer guts, is what UC San Diego is all about,” Khosla said. “IPATH captures many of our most cherished ambitions: a robust, interdisciplinary research that advances science, but also delivers tangible benefits to patients and society. Phage therapy has the potential to save millions of lives.”
Phage therapy is not a new idea. Scientists were looking into the possibility of using them for treatment until the advent of modern antibiotics in the 1930s redirected scientific research interests. Unlike antibiotics, there is no real danger of bacteria becoming superbugs, Patterson said.
The bacteria do become resistant to the phages over time but there are many more there that scientists can mine, he said.
“It’s not like antibiotics where it’s a one-off,” Patterson said. “In my case, the bacteria became resistant, actually, in short order and in three days they were able to come up with a new cocktail.”
It could take researchers 10 years to develop new antibiotics if one could ever be found, he said.
“It’s totally different and I don’t think it’s a problem,” Patterson said.
IPATH will initially concentrate its effort on patients with multidrug-resistant chronic infections associated with cystic fibrosis, organ transplantation and implantable hardware, such as pacemakers or joint replacements.
The center will also partner with Center for Phage Technology at Texas A&M University, San Diego State University and two biotechnology companies specializing in the development of therapeutic bacteriophages, San Diego-based Ampliphi Biosciences and Maryland-based Adaptive Phage Therapeutics Inc. to conduct clinical trials.