Rare bacteria collection at Pitt saves life of teenage girl

Rare bacteria collection at Pitt saves life of teenage girl

PITTSBURGH — At 17 years old, Isabelle Holdaway has already fought death and won, thanks to some help from Pittsburgh.

Isabelle lives in the United Kingdom and has cystic fibrosis. She got a lung transplant that was supposed to give her a second chance at life. Instead, it led to a bacterial infection that antibiotics couldn't fight off.

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Channel 11 spoke to her mother, Jo Holdaway, on Skype. She told us at that time in 2017, the family just kept getting bad news.

"One consultant said when she went back into ICU with liver failure, she won't be going home," said Holdaway.

Her mother told us that faced with the possibility of having to plan her own daughter's funeral, she started looking for solutions on her own. That's where Pittsburgh came in, with an email from Isabelle's team to Graham Hatfull, a professor of biological sciences at Pitt.

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"It was really much of a general inquiry as to whether we would be interested in identifying whether there was any phages in the collection that would officially collect and kill those bacterial strains," Hatfull said about that initial email.

Hatfull and his team have a collection of 15,000 bacteriophages collected from all over the world.

"They don't infect humans, they don’t infect plants or other animals, they infect bacteria," Hatfull said while explaining bacteriophages to Channel 11.

These bacteriophages don't only infect bacteria, they destroy it. The team got a sample of the bacteria killing Isabelle and got to work looking for a match to fight it.


"I wasn't aware in the early days how much intensive work it took for all these guys over in Pittsburgh to find this miracle for Isabelle," said her mother. "They literally were working around the clock trying thousands and thousands of the phages."

It took months, but the team identified three phages that worked against Isabelle's particular bacteria. They made up a drug cocktail of the phages and sent it on to her team. Her mother said the first treatment showed changes right away and every following treatment has helped Isabelle even more.

Unfortunately, the cocktail that worked for Isabelle doesn't work on a wider scale for other patients like her. However, Hatfull sees it as a first step to finding new solutions to superbugs.

"I think there's a real sense that we need more weapons in our arsenal for dealing with these infections," Hatfull said.

Isabelle is now home, playing with her dogs. She has a weekend job, studies for school and is even learning to drive. Her family is eager for a clearance to fly again so she can come visit Pittsburgh.

"We want to take her over there. We want her to meet everybody that's played a vital part in her care and her health," said Holdaway.

Isabelle's mom says she hopes to see the U.S. and U.K. relax regulations for experimental treatments. It took months for her daughter's team to get clearance to get the phage cocktail from Pittsburgh and use it in Isabelle's treatment. They are still waiting on a new phage to clean up the rest of the bacteria. She says they've waited six weeks for approval and are still unsure when it could get to Isabelle.