Antibiotic R&D is in Trouble: Here’s One Way to Fix It

5/7/12Follow @xconomy

Bacteria have been on Earth for more than a billion years, evolving in crafty ways to stay alive amid all kinds of threats. Only about 70 years ago, antibiotics came along and became one of the great triumphs of medicine, giving us the upper hand against infectious bugs. But the combination of government-funded research and free enterprise that once worked so well for developing new antibiotics is failing.

This story is nothing new to those who follow public health headlines. Officials sound alarms about increasing rates of infection they see with drug resistant “superbugs” like MRSA that people often get in hospitals. These tough-to-treat bugs come with all kinds of odd names—Pseudomonas aeruginosa, C. difficile, Acinetobacter, New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1 (NDM-1). MRSA alone is thought to kill 19,000 people in the U.S. every year—more than die annually from a better known virus called HIV.

Despite the growing threats from these ever-evolving bugs, the pharmaceutical industry has continued to make cutbacks in antibiotic R&D for at least 20 years, as it searches for lucrative new drugs to replace its aging blockbusters in other areas. This market climate has produced only two new antibiotics approved by the FDA the past two years. And the pipeline of new antibiotics is dry. A 2011 study by the Infectious Diseases Society of America found only two intravenous antibiotics against gram-negative bacteria in mid-to-late stage clinical development with a novel way of attacking resistant bugs.

Even though a number of companies (like Pfizer) sell antibiotics and make decent money off them, there are now only three major companies left in the world with active antibiotic discovery teams. It’s hard to nail down that number for sure, but that’s according to Mike Bonney, the CEO of Lexington, MA-based antibiotic developer Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST), who has good reason to study the competition. The three big companies left in antibiotic discovery are AstraZeneca, Novartis, and Merck, he says.

Cubist, a profitable but small company with an anti-MRSA drug called daptomycin (Cubicin), believes its 150-person antibiotic discovery team is among the largest in the world, Bonney says. There are some well-funded small companies working on antibiotics (including Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals, Achaogen, and Trius Therapeutics), and even a couple new IPO candidates Rib-X Pharmaceuticals and Durata Therapeutics.

Mike Bonney, CEO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals

But any way you slice it, antibiotics is an industry backwater. There’s nowhere near the intense focus of industry resources here that you see with other diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. Antibiotics just can’t compete financially with these diseases when push comes to shove at R&D portfolio review time. A good antibiotic on the market is taken for seven to 14 days, cures at least 90 percent of patients, and generates maybe $20,000 or so per patient for the company on the high end (and more likely between $2,000-$3,000). Drugs for chronic diseases can be far more lucrative, by generating recurring revenue for months or years.

“We have to provide a bit of a thumb on the scale to correct this market efficiency,” Bonney says.

There are all kinds of factors that have contributed to this emerging bacteria problem, and no one piece of legislation will fix everything. Physicians who overprescribe antibiotics have been a major contributor to the problem, and agribusiness and veterinarians have been over-pumping antibiotics into livestock to help fend off illness. Those are tough problems that need to be corralled as part of a comprehensive solution.

But developing new antibiotics, and finding ways to spur more antibiotic R&D, is also part of the equation. There is a significant new piece of legislation working through Congress now, called the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act focused on this part. Various forms of this bill (House bill 2182) have been introduced in Congress before, but the main thing this bill would do is provide antibiotic developers an additional five years of market exclusivity for their products. Essentially, that gives a company another five years to reap sizable profits from its new antibiotics before facing competition from cheaper generics.

This is a good idea for a number of reasons. For starters, it doesn’t require our cash-strapped federal government to spend a lot of new money. And it enables companies to … Next Page »

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  • Jerry Jeff

    My daughter got pink eye last week and was prescribed ciprofloxacin eye drops. I thought that was a terrible sign of other drugs’ ineffectiveness. Here’s hoping we can stay ahead of the bugs.

  • Ted

    Hi Jeff:

    Ciproflox. and gentamicin are the most commonly prescribed antibiotics for conjunctivitis. The bigger question is, “Why prescribe an antibiotic for conjunctivitis?” I think it is mostly because daycare and schools require children to “be on” eyedrops for 24 hours before returning to school.

    This, of course, ignores the fact that a significant (I’ve seen estimates above 80%) portion of conjunctivitis cases are viral in nature, and that more than half of all cases resolve in two to five days with no treatment.

    I think this is a great example of a system problem. The parents want to do something for the kids AND get them back in school, the school wants to “protect” the other kids, the doctor wants the patient to leave with something tangible and the government wants a straightforward guideline. So all of the kids get an antibiotic for pink eye.

    The BMJ published an interesting article a few years back:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC487715/

    Fortunately, I think over-prescription in this arena is unlikely to cultivate a lot of resistant bacteria.

    -t

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