Century-old treatment changes brave teen’s life

An age-old therapy has renewed the life of a brave Sydney teen, who endured years of treatments for a stubborn bacteria without any results.

Rebecca Pallone has cystic fibrosis, and while growing up struggled through lung infections, bronchitis, pseudomonas and nasal polyps.

At the age of eight, Rebecca contracted a germ which left her unable to maintain her weight and caused her lung function to significantly decline. This germ, Mycobacterium Abscessus, lingered with her for five years, resisting treatment after treatment.

Over those years Rebecca was on a “cocktail of antiobiotics”, doing nebulizers five times a day, with a gastronomy button for overnight feeds, but her mother Trudi could see her daughter getting sicker.

“Rebecca was on a spiral of ill health with a lot of medication that was not helping. It was five years of interruption to her life, her schooling and her growth,” Trudi said.

It was then that Clinical Professor Dr Paul Robinson, Respiratory Medicine at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, suggested a century-old treatment called phages, which has recently returned as a novel therapy for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Phages, formally known as bacteriophages, are viruses that selectively target bacteria and can kill them. 

First discovered more than 100 years ago, robust research and development of phage therapy was disregarded in the face of antibiotic treatments. However, with the rise of ‘superbugs’ it is now reemerging as an alternative or addition to traditional antibiotics.

The phages were sent to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead from America and injected into Rebecca daily for almost a year. For the first time in years, there was good news.

“Her first test results showed an improvement and every test result after that was better and better. Honestly, I wanted to stand on the top of the roof and scream it to the whole world,” Trudi said.

As of September 2021, there was no more Mycobacterium Abscessus. 

Trudi says Rebecca is doing so well that her gastrostomy button has been removed and she no longer needs to do overnight feeds. 

“Her weight is fantastic and she’s now taller than me. She got the highest mark in her ballet exam, is an awesome goalkeeper for her soccer team and she’s doing very well at school,” she said.

Rebecca is one of the first in Australia to be successfully treated with phage therapy, thanks to the Westmead Health and Innovation Precinct, including Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, Western Sydney LHD and Westmead Institute for Medical Research, regarded as the most advanced centre for phage therapy in Australia.

“If we could somehow help to have this treatment available to other children like Rebecca, how fabulous would that be. It is possible,” Trudi said.

To learn more about phage therapy, visit Phage Australia.