Friday, February 22, 2013

New Drugs for Bad Bugs?

For the last several decades infectious disease physicians have been warning about the ever-increasing prevalence of pathogens that are resistant to existing antibiotics. This includes some really scary organisms such as multidrug-resistant Enterococci and vancomycin resistant MRSA. Despite this rapidly evolving threat there has been relatively little research on new antibiotics within Big Pharma. Presumably the return on investment for this area is not attractive to the industry.


Thus it is cheering to learn that the European Union Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) is preparing to invest $550M in drug discovery for new antibiotics. This seems a very timely move. Contemporary high speed DNA sequencing technology now allows genomes of bacterial strains to be analyzed with ease thus potentially leading to the identification of many potential new targets. The IMI initiative will involve both public funding and the collaboration of academic institutions and drug companies. Thus it seems to share in the current trend for pre-competitive collaboration in drug discovery. While even half a billion dollars may not be enough to bring one or more new antibiotics all the may through clinical trials and into the marketplace, at least it seems likely that novel and important new lead compounds will emerge from this effort.


Despite somewhat of a surge in new drug approvals in 2012 (1) it remains clear that the purely profit driven model of Big Pharma is failing to address therapeutic areas that are vitally important to public health (2). Public-private partnerships with more interaction at the precompetitive level, like the present IMI effort, may help fill those gaps.


(1) K. Jiang. Near-record number of approvals signals drug development shift. Nature Medicine 19:114 (2013)


(2) R.L. Juliano. Pharmaceutical innovation and public policy: The case for a new strategy for drug discovery and development. Science & Public Policy (epub ahead of print, 2013) 

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