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New Collaborative Model For Drug Discovery Can Ensure Antibiotics Are Not Lost To Resistance

Noting “[m]ultidrug-resistant organisms are showing up in top-flight hospitals” around the world, Carl Nathan, chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, writes in this New York Times opinion piece, “What makes the rapid loss of antibiotics to drug resistance particularly alarming is that we are failing to make new ones.” He continues, “We are emptying our medicine chest of the most important class of medicines we ever had. And the cause can be traced, for the most part, to two profound problems.”

“The first is economic,” he writes, noting that “if an antibiotic is useful against only one type of bacterium, relatively few people need it during its patent life.” He adds, “The second challenge stems from the nature of bacteria,” writing, “Large numbers of independently mutating bacteria test adaptations to group problems, like how to survive antibiotics.” He continues, “Merge these two problems — scientific and economic — and the result is a drug-development disaster: the prospects are so discouraging that few companies bother to try anymore.” He asks, “But what if we take a page out of the pathogen playbook?” and writes, “Many pathogens exchange DNA, sharing what they learn. Drug makers can operate in the same way.” He notes some examples of such collaboration and concludes, “If we don’t make new antibiotics, we will lose the ability to practice modern medicine. A new collaborative model for drug discovery can help make sure this doesn’t happen” (12/9).