In light of the news earlier this week of the discovery of a resistant strain of E. coli, this looks like good news from Harvard:
Erythromycin, which was discovered in a soil sample from the Philippines in 1949, has been on the market as a drug by 1953. “For 60 years chemists have been very, very creative, finding clever ways to ‘decorate’ this molecule, making changes around its periphery to produce antibiotics that are safer, more effective, and overcome the resistance bacteria have developed,” says Dr. Myers, Amory Houghton Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “That process is semisynthesis, modifying the naturally occurring substance.”
In contrast, the process described in the Nature study involves using “eight industrial chemicals, or substances derived from them,” according to Dr. Myers, and manipulating them in various combinations and then testing the products against panels of disease causing bacteria. This allows us to make new “new compounds in fewer steps than was previously possible.”
For a host of reasons, from the difficulty of developing antibiotics to the relatively low return on investment they offer, by 2013 the number of international pharmaceutical companies developing antibiotics had dwindled to four. And in each 5-year period from 1983 through 2007, the number of new antibiotics approved for use in the U.S. decreased, from 16 at the beginning of that period to only five by its end.
One thing that has complicated antibiotic development is a perceived reluctance by federal agencies to fund the research. In fact, Dr. Myers says, his new antibiotic development system would have been impossible without support from a Harvard alum and his wife who are interested in science and Harvard’s Blavatnik Accelerator Fund, which provided support for the initial creation of Myers’s company Macrolide Pharmaceuticals.
“I was making a presentation to a group of visiting alumns interested in science and one, Alastair Mactaggart, asked me about funding. I told him I had no funding because at that time we didn’t, and he followed me back to my office and said, ‘this is ridiculous: we have to do something about this’.”
Gee, it’s almost as though the government is completely incompetent at its core functions while busying itself with things that are none of its business.