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“Science is the Answer” Celebrated at Wistar Party

May 21, 2019

In the beautiful setting of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Wistar friends attended this year’s Wistar Party, a celebration of Wistar science that has carried on for decades, and an opportunity for the Institute to express its gratitude to our most committed supporters.

“Science is the answer,” said Dario Altieri, M.D., Wistar president and CEO, as he welcomed guests. “I cannot tell you how good it is to be with all of you tonight and how much your support means for our science and our mission to find new answers to fight cancer and infectious diseases.”

In the 1800s, the Institute’s namesake Caspar Wistar, M.D., hosted salon-style parties with local scientists, literati and distinguished guests to discuss the advancement of science. In line with this storied tradition, the 2019 Wistar Party hosted a very special guest.

Steffanie Strathdee, Ph.D., associate dean of Global Health Sciences, and Harold Simon Professor at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Department of Medicine, told a fascinating scientific and personal story of how she resurrected an old therapy to save her husband’s life from a deadly, antibiotic resistant superbug.

Antibiotic resistance has emerged as a pressing public health issue as several infections that we used to be able to control and treat with antibiotics have stopped responding and are coming back as serious threats.

“It is an urgent matter that calls for urgent solutions,” said Farokh Dotiwala, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., assistant professor in Wistar’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center, who introduced Strathdee. Dotiwala said Strathdee’s story resonates with him because his research career is dedicated to finding novel approaches to defeat bacterial infections.

“Dr. Strathdee’s work is a powerful and innovative contribution that is already saving lives,” he added.

Strathdee, an infectious disease epidemiologist, shared the story of how she and her husband, Tom Patterson, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at UCSD, were vacationing in Egypt when he fell critically ill. While his health was rapidly deteriorating, he was transferred back home to San Diego and was diagnosed with an infection from multi-drug resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, one of the most dangerous bacteria in the world, which failed to respond to all the antibiotic treatments administered.

When all hope seemed lost, and no antibiotics were working, Strathdee went on a scientific quest to find a different approach to the problem and started combing through old and new research literature. That’s how she came across phage therapy.

Bacteriophages, also known as phages, are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Their name, derived from a Greek word, literally means that they “eat” bacteria.

Research from the early 1900s on phages as an antibacterial treatment fell out of favor after antibiotic use went mainstream, but it might have a strong come back now that we face such a critical antibiotic resistant crisis. And especially after Strathdee opened the possibility of a path forward.

She turned to phage experts all over the world for help and they came together to find the right phage that could kill Patterson’s infection. Phages, in fact, have a high specificity for their bacterial prey. The researchers were eventually able to find the matching phages, which obtained expedited FDA approval and were given to Patterson, just when his organs were going into failure. Three days later, he opened his eyes and started recovering.

Strathdee’s and Patterson’s success story was a true medical breakthrough and helped jumpstart global research efforts on phage therapy. A few additional patients in the U.S. and abroad have been treated with success and no adverse effects. The UCSD School of Medicine created the interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH) that is investigating bringing back phage therapy as an alternative tool to fight infections that cannot be treated with antibiotics. Strathdee co-directs the Center with Robert Schooley, M.D., infectious disease specialist and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UCSD, who joined forces with her to make phage therapy a reality.

Strathdee and her husband wrote a book about their journey, The Perfect Predator, described by Scientific American as “fascinating and terrifying”, and in 2018, she was named one of TIME’s 50 Most Influential People in Health Care who “have changed the state of health care in America.”

Learn more about becoming a President’s Society member and being invited to events such as this.

Read a recent article in the New York Times about phage therapy that features Strathdee.

Wistar Party 2019