When Paul Johnson went in for his heart surgery in 2015, he knew there were risked involved, but he never could have predicted what came next. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Paul had been exposed to a bacteria called M. chimaera, and it would slowly begin to spread throughout his body. The contamination was traced to heater-cooler machines used in heart surgeries, and it quickly became clear that hundreds of patients could have been exposed.
Dr. Stefanie Smith met Paul 4 years after his surgery, and by that time he had been admitted to hospital for a variety of non-specific symptoms. When he was diagnosed with M. chimaera, all the pieces fell into place for Dr. Smith. Knowing now that Paul was infected with this rare but very deadly disease, she began to search for solutions to save Paul’s life. Paul underwent two more surgeries that were aimed at removing the infection from his body, but sadly these were not entirely successful. Looking for other options, Dr. Smith consulted with her colleague Dr. Osman, a researcher in Immunology. He speculated that immune modulation therapy would likely be most successful using Interferon Gamma.
Interferon Gamma is a medication that stimulates the immune system, and though it seemed like a promising solution, the path forward was far from simple. Interferon Gamma had never been used in Canada for this purpose, and as such would require many approvals from many entities. The first solution was to enrol Paul in a clinical trial of one to gain Health Canada approval. Upon receiving that approval, Paul’s case was presented to the manufacturer of Interferon Gamma, Horizon Therapeutics. Unfortunately, their initial response was to decline authorization of Interferon Gamma for this particular use. This refusal would not deter the team though, and Dr. Smith soon reached out to a colleague of hers at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. She would reach out to Horizon Therapeutics to plead Pauls case, and it was also her suggestion that Paul be moved down to the NIH.
Paul’s journey to the NIH proved to be the turning point in his case. Now with approval for use of Interferon Gamma, he began a prolonged course of treatment at the NIH. Paul had his doubts after his history of unsuccessful treatments, but after six weeks, he finally began to notice a significant improvement. Since then, steady progress has been made and he has slowly began to regain so much of what had been lost to him while fighting the M. chimaera infection for so many years.
Paul’s patient journey has been a long one, but it finally looks like it’s reaching its end. The dedication of Dr. Smith and her team and the willingness and generosity of Paul will hopefully pave the way towards better treatments for those suffering from M. chimaera infections. Paul feels like he has a future again, and and thanks to research, it looks brighter than ever.