With the number of multidrug-resistant infections on the rise, the World Health Organization reported on Tuesday that there aren’t enough new antibiotics under development to manage the threat. To make matters worse, the WHO also believes the speed at which bacteria are developing a resistance to these life-saving medications is likely to outpace slow development cycles associated with new drugs.
As reported by CNN, the report released by the WHO stated that, as of May, there were a total of 51 antibiotics and 11 biologicals, a line of medical products derived from natural sources, in development.
Biologicals are thought to be a potential key to fighting resistant bacteria. Peter Beyer, the senior adviser to the Department of Essential Medicines and Health Products at the WHO and author of the report, stated, “The idea is that biologicals could replace the use of antibiotics, which could help in overcoming the resistance problem.”
While the number of new treatments seems large on the surface, only 33 of the antibiotics being developed target what are known as “priority pathogens,” or that belong to 12 known families of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are deemed to pose the most significant threat to human health. And, of those 33, only eight are considered truly innovative, with the remaining 25 representing simple modifications to existing antibiotics.
Even though the 25 antibiotics may provide some relief, they are considered short-term solutions, as bacteria are expected to adapt quickly to resist these new drugs.
“It is difficult to speculate why companies develop specific new medicines,” said Beyer. “But, in general, many new treatments do not necessarily constitute advances over existing treatments.”
One of the priority pathogens, a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis (TB), is said to kill nearly 250,000 people worldwide each year. TB infections require a minimum of three antibiotics to treat, though, according to the report, only seven new TB drugs have even reached the clinical trial phase.
The report warns that soon there will be an insufficient number of treatment options for TB.
Gram-negative bacteria are also a significant concern, often causing severe and potentially deadly infections, most often in hospitals and nursing homes. The pathogen has a more complex cell wall structure than gram-positive bacteria, making treatment challenging.
Beyer states, In a nutshell, it is more complex to develop a novel antibiotic that can penetrate the complex gram-negative cell wall and stay inside the bacterium.”
Associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Bill Hanage said, “More resistant infections don’t just mean you or someone you care about is more likely to die from one, they also mean health care will get even more expensive.”
Hanage continued, “Many of the procedures we take for granted in medicine, from cancer treatments to surgeries, depend on our ability to handle infections that happen in the course of treatment.”
He asserts that the number of new antibiotics in development is simply insufficient, especially since not every new treatment makes “it into the hands of doctors.” Hanage said, “As the [WHO] report states, for drugs to be used in humans they have to pass 3 hurdles, the phase 1,2 and 3 trials. Drugs entering that pipeline have just a 14% chance of getting all the way through to be used in humans.”