Antibiotics are among the most important drugs, but their effects are often limited: many bacteria develop resistance, so the agents are not effective.
By Christian Baars and Oda Lambrecht, NDR
As early as 1945, Alexander Fleming, the discovery of penicillin's most famous antibiotic, warned that resistance to his drug could occur. Since then, scientists and doctors have been watching it over and over again: as soon as a new antibiotic is used, some bacteria develop defense mechanisms against this drug. They manage to survive and thus multiply and expand. Therefore, it is necessary to always have different means at your disposal.
Not a panacea
In the 1950s and 1960s, pharmaceutical companies developed a range of different antibiotics. Many believed that the problem was resolved. But then suddenly the terrible MRSA germs quickly spread. It was a certain type of bacteria, the so-called staphylococci, which were equally resistant to several drugs.
Many large pharmaceutical companies therefore continued their research in the 1980s. Some new antibiotics against MRSA have appeared on the market. And with increasing awareness of resource use and better sanitation in clinics, the number of diseases and deaths from these bacteria has been declining in many countries in recent years.
Hundreds of thousands dead from new microbes
But for some time now, doctors and scientists around the world have been observing a new, growing threat from other microbes than the well-known MRSA: the so-called gram-negative bacteria (MRGN). These include germs such as Escheria coli (E. coli) or Klebsiella pneumoniae, which can cause life-threatening infections and become increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics. They are spreading rapidly in many countries around the world and are already causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.
Earlier this 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) rated several of these bacteria particularly critical. New antibiotics were urgently needed. But it is not against these bacteria that any truly new active ingredient has been developed for over 30 years. And the odds of that changing soon are bad.
Hardly a new development
Last year, scientists at Lancet Magazine analyzed whether antibiotics, currently under development around the world, are working against these particularly problematic bacteria. The result is sobriety. Although various companies, especially small businesses, are currently testing a total of about 40 antibiotics in trials. But usually only a small fraction of the drugs under development are approved in the end. For comparison, over 1000 new cancer drugs are currently being tested.
And of the 40 or more antibiotics, only eleven may be used against some of the most problematic, Lancet's analysis showed. And ten of them are advances in existing resources. Only one would be really new preparation. But just with this drug, the company recently had to cancel clinical trials because too many patients had serious side effects.
Time is running out
Since the development of a new drug usually takes at least ten to 15 years, it is already predictable that doctors will not have new resources available to combat particularly problematic microbes in the coming period.
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