Opinion: Chasing a fast-moving target

The market for new antibiotics is forecast to be huge, so why are pharma companies showing so little interest in their development?

Hilary Ayshford
Managing Editor

Pharma companies are not usually slow to accept a challenge. The speed of response when faced with an immediate crisis such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was impressive and a range of treatments and vaccines was developed in double-quick time.

Yet the spread of multidrug resistant organisms continues to advance unchecked, with seemingly little effort being channelled into development of antibiotics.

AstraZeneca is to set up a standalone company into which it can offload its antibiotics R&D, having failed to find a new owner for this part of its business. Despite having a strong pipeline, the company no longer regards antibiotics as part of its core interests, preferring to focus on oncology and diabetes.

It is true that the return on investment from a new antibiotic is not likely to be staggeringly high, even though the number of lives lost to drug-resistant infections could reach 10 million a year worldwide by 2050. There is also a question over the longevity of any new antibiotic – it is not inconceivable that the target organism may already have mutated, making a new drug less effective even before it reaches the market.

And then the persistent problem of inappropriate and excessive prescribing still needs to be resolved. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has even called on doctors to spy on their colleagues’ prescribing habits.

One device that could help is a new smartphone-enabled biosensor-based technology that gives healthcare staff an accurate and fast method of identifying the nature of infectious diseases. The hand-held device, developed by UK-based OJ Bio, uses specially developed biochips with a dedicated reader and supporting software carried on a mobile phone app or a PC to determine whether an infection is viral or bacterial.

Rare diseases have been attracting much attention lately, but unless the industry takes strong, concerted action soon, drug-resistant infections are one area of unmet medical need that could become all too common.