An attacking rogue hippo, giant jumping spiders, even a coup in Timbuktu couldn't knock out Tom Patterson, but now he was losing the fight against a microscopic bacteria.
Death seemed inevitable, perhaps hours away, despite heroic efforts to keep him alive.
It was the deadly drug-resistant superbug Acinetobacter baumannii. The infection struck during a holiday trip with his wife to the pyramids in Egypt and had sent his body into toxic shock. His health was deteriorating so rapidly that his insurance company paid to medevac him first to Germany, then home to San Diego.
Weeks passed as he lay in a coma, shedding more than a hundred pounds. Several major organs were on the precipice of collapse, and death seemed inevitable, perhaps hours away despite heroic efforts by a major research university hospital to keep Tom alive.
Tom Patterson in a deep coma on March 14, 2016, the day before phage therapy was initiated.
(Courtesy Steffanie Strathdee)
Then doctors tried something boldly experimental -- injecting him with a cocktail of bacteriophages, tiny viruses that might infect and kill the bacteria ravaging his body.
It worked. Days later Tom's eyes fluttered open for a few brief seconds, signaling that the corner had been turned. Recovery would take more weeks in the hospital and about a year of rehabilitation before life began to resemble anything near normal.
In her new book The Perfect Predator, Tom's wife, Steffanie Strathdee, recounts the personal and scientific ordeal from twin perspectives as not only his spouse but also as a research epidemiologist who has traveled the world to track down diseases.
Part of the reason why Steff wrote the book is that both she and Tom suffered severe PTSD after his illness. She says they also felt it was "part of our mission, to ensure that phage therapy wasn't going to be forgotten for another hundred years."
Tom Patterson and Steffanie Strathdee taking a first breath of fresh air during recovery outside the UCSD hospital.
(Courtesy Steffanie Strathdee)
From Prehistoric Arms Race to Medical Marvel
Bacteriophages, or phages for short, evolved as part of the natural ecosystem. They are viruses that infect bacteria, hijacking their host's cellular mechanisms to reproduce themselves, and in the process destroying the bacteria. The entire cycle plays out in about 20-60 minutes, explains Ben Chan, a phage research scientist at Yale University.
They were first used to treat bacterial infections a century ago. But the development of antibiotics soon eclipsed their use as medicine and a combination of scientific, economic, and political factors relegated them to a dusty corner of science. The emergence of multidrug-resistant bacteria has highlighted the limitations of antibiotics and prompted a search for new approaches, including a revived interest in phages.
Most phages are very picky, seeking out not just a specific type of bacteria, but often a specific strain within a family of bacteria. They also prefer to infect healthy replicating bacteria, not those that are at rest. That's what makes them so intriguing to tap as potential therapy.
Tom's case was one of the first times that phages were successfully infused into the bloodstream of a human.
Phages and bacteria evolved measures and countermeasures to each other in an "arms race" that began near the dawn of life on the planet. It is not that one consciously tries to thwart the other, says Chan, it's that countless variations of each exists in the world and when a phage gains the upper hand and kills off susceptible bacteria, it opens up a space in the ecosystem for similar bacteria that are not vulnerable to the phage to increase in numbers. Then a new phage variant comes along and the cycle repeats.
Robert "Chip" Schooley is head of infectious diseases at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine and a leading expert on treating HIV. He had no background with phages but when Steff, a friend and colleague, approached him in desperation about using them with Tom, he sprang into action to learn all he could, and to create a network of experts who might provide phages capable of killing Acinetobacter.
"There is very little evidence that phage[s] are dangerous," Chip concluded after first reviewing the literature and now after a few years of experience using them. He compares broad-spectrum antibiotics to using a bazooka, where every time you use them, less and less of the "good" bacteria in the body are left. "With a phage cocktail what you're really doing is more of a laser."
Collaborating labs were able to identify two sets of phage cocktails that were sensitive to Tom's particular bacterial infection. And the FDA acted with lightning speed to authorize the experimental treatment.
A bag of a four-phage "cocktail" before being infused into Tom Patterson.
(Courtesy Steffanie Strathdee)
Tom's case was scientifically important because it was one of the first times that phages were successfully infused into the bloodstream of a human. Most prior use of phages involved swallowing them or placing them directly on the area of infection.
The success has since sparked a renewed interest in phages and a reexamination of their possible role in medicine.
Over the two years since Tom awoke from his coma, several other people around the world have been successfully treated with phages as part of their regimen, after antibiotics have failed.
The Future of Phage Therapy
The experience treating Tom prompted UCSD to create the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH), with Chip and Steff as co-directors. Previous labs have engaged in basic research on phages, but this is the first clinical center in North America to focus on translating that knowledge into treating patients.
In January, IPATH announced the first phase 2 clinical trial approved by the FDA that will use phages intravenously. The viruses are being developed by AmpliPhi Biosciences, a San Diego-based company that supplied one of the phages used to treat Tom. The new study takes on drug resistant Staph aureus bacteria. Experimental phage therapy treatment using the company's product candidates was recently completed in 21 patients at seven hospitals who had been suffering from serious infections that did not respond to antibiotics. The reported success rate was 84 percent.
The new era of phage research is applying cutting-edge biologic and informatics tools to better understand and reshape the viruses to better attack bacteria, evade resistance, and perhaps broaden their reach a bit within a bacterial family.
Genetic engineering tools are being used to enhance the phages' ability to infect targeted bacteria.
"As we learn more and more about which biological activities are critical and in which clinical settings, there are going to be ways to optimize these activities," says Chip. Sometimes phages may be used alone, other times in combination with antibiotics.
Genetic engineering using tools are being used to enhance the phages' ability to infect targeted bacteria and better counter evolving forms of bacterial resistance in the ongoing "arms race" between the two. It isn't just theory. A patient recently was successfully treated with a genetically modified phage as part of the regimen, and the paper is in press.
In reality, given the trillions of phages in the world and the endless encounters they have had with bacteria over the millennia, it is likely that the exact phages needed to kill off certain bacteria already exist in nature. Using CRISPR to modify a phage is simply a quick way to identify the right phage useful for a given patient and produce it in the necessary quantities, rather than go search for the proverbial phage needle in a sewage haystack, says Chan.
One non-medical reason why using modified phages could be significant is that it creates an intellectual property stake, something that is patentable with a period of exclusive use. Major pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists have been hesitant to invest in organisms found in nature; but a patentable modification may be enough to draw their interest to phage development and provide the funding for large-scale clinical trials necessary for FDA approval and broader use.
"There are 10 million trillion trillion phages on the planet, 10 to the power of 31. And the fact is that this ongoing evolutionary arms race between bacteria and phage, they've been at it for a millennia," says Steff. "We just need to exploit it."
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.