Bacteriophage Therapy

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In March 2016, Tom Patterson, PhD, professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine, became the first known person in the United States to successfully undergo intravenous bacteriophage (phage) therapy. He had contracted a life-threatening infection with a multidrug-resistant strain of Acinetobacter baumannii, an opportunistic and often deadly bacterium, while vacationing in Egypt in November 2015. Patterson was eventually transported to UC San Diego Health where, with emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he was treated intravenously with an experimental phage cocktail that specifically targeted A. baumannii. He began improving almost immediately, emerging from a months-long coma. After a long recovery, Patterson has now fully recovered and returned to work.

Patterson’s experience opened a fresh avenue of research aimed at finding alternatives to traditional antibiotics, amidst the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. In an effort led by Patterson’s wife, Steffanie Strathdee, PhD, associate dean of global health sciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine, and Robert “Chip” Schooley, MD, professor of medicine and an infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego Health, five patients at UC San Diego Health have now been treated with phages. One of these patients had a years-long chronic infection that was successfully cleared, allowing him to undergo life-saving heart transplant surgery. In all cases, the phage treatments were considered experimental and required emergency approval by the FDA.

To further advance this work, in June 2018 UC San Diego School of Medicine launched the interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH) with a three-year, $1.2 million grant from UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla. Co-directed by Strathdee and Schooley, it is the first such center in North America.

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What is Phage Therapy?

Phages are viruses that only infect bacteria. "Bacteriophage" is Greek for “bacteria eater.” Phages as a therapeutic for bacterial infections in humans dates back roughly a century, but with the introduction of antibiotics in the mid-1900s, phages fell out of favor in most parts of the world. Now, with the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, phage therapy returns to the spotlight.

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  • Tom Patterson and wife, Steffanie Strathdee, at home in December 2016, nine months after phage therapy at UC San Diego Health and 13 months since he contracted a multi-drug resistant bacterial infection in Egypt.

  • Bacteriophages (orange) are viruses that specifically infect bacterial cells

  • Tom Patterson and wife, Steffanie Strathdee

    UC San Diego Health phage therapy patient Tom Patterson and wife, Steffanie Strathdee, in November 2015, vacationing in Egypt just days before Patterson contracted a multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii infection

  • bacteria Acinetobacter baumanni

    Phage therapy was used at UC San Diego Health to treat Tom Patterson’s multidrug-resistant infection with the bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii (pictured here in pink). Credit: CDC

  • Doctors and patient

    UC San Diego Health’s Robert Schooley, MD, and Randy Taplitz, MD, administer intravenous experimental phage therapy for patient Tom Patterson, four months after he contracted a multidrug-resistant bacterial infection in Egypt.

  • Bacteriophages attacking a bacterium

    Bacteriophages (green) attacking a bacterium (orange). Credit: MIT/Wikipedia

  • Tom Patterson in hostpital

    Tom Patterson recovering at Thornton Hospital at UC San Diego Health in July 2016, four months after phage therapy and eight months after he initially contracted a multi-drug resistant bacterial infection in Egypt.

  • Tom Patterson leaving Thornton Hospital at UC San Diego Health for the last time in August 2016, five months after phage therapy and nine months since he contracted a multi-drug resistant bacterial infection in Egypt.