A reader sent along news of this interview on "The Daily Show" with Martin Blaser of NYU. He has a book out, Missing Microbes, on the overuse of antibiotics and the effects on various microbiomes. And I think he's got a lot of good points - we should only be exerting selection pressure where we have to, not (for example) slapping triclosan on every surface because it somehow makes consumers feel "germ-free". And there are (and always have been) too many antibiotics dispensed for what turn out to be viral infections, for which they will, naturally, do no good at all and probably some harm.
But Dr. Blaser, though an expert on bacteria, does not seem to be an expert on discovering drugs to kill bacteria. I've generated a transcript of part of the interview, starting around the five-minute mark, which went like this:
Stewart: Isn't there some way, that, the antibiotics can be used to kill the strep, but there can be some way of rejuvenating the microbiome that was doing all those other jobs?
Blaser: Well, that's what we need to do. We need to make narrow-spectrum antibiotics. We have broad-spectrum, that attack everything, but we have the science that we could develop narrow-spectrum antibiotics that will just target the one organism - maybe it's strep, maybe it's a different organism - but then we need the diagnostics, so that somebody going to the doctor, they say "You have a virus" "You have a bacteria", if you have a bacteria, which one is it?
Stewart: Now isn't this where the genome-type projects are going? Because finding the genetic makeup of these bacteria, won't that allow us to target these things more specifically?
Blaser Yeah. We have so much genomic information - we can harness that to make better medicine. . .
Stewart: Who would do the thing you're talking about, come up with the targeted - is it drug companies, could it, like, only be done through the CDC, who would do that. . .
Blaser: That's what we need taxes for. That's our tax dollars. Just like when we need taxes to build the road that everybody uses, we need to develop the drugs that our kids and our grandkids are going to use so that these epidemics could be stopped.
Stewart: Let's say, could there be a Manhattan Project, since that's the catch-all for these types of "We're going to put us on the moon" - let's say ten years, is that a realistic goal?
Blaser: I think it is. I think it is. We need both diagnostics, we need narrow-spectrum agents, and we have to change the economic base of how we assess illness in kids and how we treat kids and how we pay doctors. . .
First off, from a drug discovery perspective, a narrow-spectrum antibiotic, one that kills only (say) a particular genus of bacterium, has several big problems: it's even harder to discover than a broader-spectrum agent, its market is much smaller, it's much harder to prescribe usefully, and its lifetime as a drug is shorter. (Other than that, it's fine). The reasons for these are as follows:
Most antibiotic targets are enzyme systems peculiar to bacteria (as compared to eukaryotes like us), but such targets are shared across a lot of bacteria. They tend to be aimed at things like membrane synthesis and integrity (bacterial membranes are rather different than those of animals and plants), or target features of DNA handling that are found in different forms due to bacteria having no nuclei, and so on. Killing bacteria with mechanisms that are also found in human cells is possible, but it's a rough way to go: a drug of that kind would be similar to a classic chemotherapy agent, killing the fast-dividing bacteria (in theory) just before killing the patient.
So finding a Streoptococcus-only drug is a very tall order. You'd have to find some target-based difference between those bacteria and all their close relatives, and I can tell you that we don't know enough about bacterial biochemistry to sort things out quite that well. Stewart brings up genomic efforts, and points to him for it, because that's a completely reasonable suggestion. Unfortunately, it's a reasonable suggestion from about 1996. The first complete bacterial genomes became available in the late 1990s, and have singularly failed to produce any new targeted antibiotics whatsoever. The best reference I can send people to is the GSK "Drugs For Bad Bugs" paper, which shows just what happened (and not just at GSK) to the new frontier of new bacterial targets. Update: see also this excellent overview. A lot of companies tried this, and got nowhere. It did indeed seem possible that sequencing bacteria would give us all sorts of new ways to target them, but that's not how it's worked out in practice. Blaser's interview gives the impression that none of this has happened yet, but believe me, it has.
The market for a narrow-spectrum agent would necessarily be smaller, by design, but the cost of finding it would (as mentioned above) be greater, so the final drug would have to cost a great deal per dose - more than health insurance would want to pay, given the availability of broad-spectrum agents at far lower prices. It could not be prescribed without positively identifying the infectious agent - which adds to the cost of treatment, too. Without faster and more accurate ways to do this (which Blaser rightly notes as something we don't have), the barriers to developing such a drug are even higher.
And the development of resistance would surely take such a drug out of usefulness even faster, since the resistance plasmids would only have to spread between very closely related bacteria, who are swapping genes at great speed. I understand why Blaser (and others) would like to have more targeted agents, so as not to plow up the beneficial microbiome every time a patient is treated, but we'd need a lot of them, and we'd need new ones all the time. This in a world where we can't even seem to discover the standard type of antibiotic.
And not for lack of trying, either. There's a persistent explanation for the state of antibiotic therapy that blames drug companies for supposedly walking away from the field. This has the cause and effect turned around. It's true that some of them have given up working in the area (along with quite a few other areas), but they left because nothing was working. The companies that stayed the course have explored, in great detail and at great expense, the problem that nothing much is working. If there ever was a field of drug discovery where the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean, it is antibiotic research. You have to use binoculars to convince yourself that there's any more fruit up there at all. I wish that weren't so, very much. But it is. Bacteria are hard to kill.
So the talk later on in the interview of spending some tax dollars and getting a bunch of great new antibiotics in ten years is, unfortunately, a happy fantasy. For one thing, getting a single new drug onto the market in only ten years from the starting pistol is very close to impossible, in any therapeutic area. The drug industry would be in much better shape if that weren't so, but here we are. In that section, Jon Stewart actually brings to life one of the reasons I have this blog: he doesn't know where drugs come from, and that's no disgrace, because hardly anyone else knows, either.