Magazine article Newsweek

Doctors Are Running out of Effective Drugs Because of Poor Financial Incentives to Develop Them; Medical Researchers Have Known for Decades That the Pipeline for New Drugs to Stave off Bacterial Infections Would One Day Run Dry. That Day Is Now at Hand

Magazine article Newsweek

Doctors Are Running out of Effective Drugs Because of Poor Financial Incentives to Develop Them; Medical Researchers Have Known for Decades That the Pipeline for New Drugs to Stave off Bacterial Infections Would One Day Run Dry. That Day Is Now at Hand

Article excerpt

Byline: David H. Freedman

Medical researchers have known for decades that the pipeline for new drugs to stave off bacterial infections would one day run dry. That day is now at hand.

In some cases, doctors have no drugs to give their patients for what once were treatable infections but are now life-threatening. Although researchers have many good leads, the bigger problem is a lack of financial incentives to bring new treatments through the drug-development gantlet.

"When I signed up to be an infectious disease specialist 25 years ago, I never thought it would come to this," says Helen Boucher, a physician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and director of its infectious disease fellowship and heart transplant programs. Boucher has been a leading advocate for finding ways of investing in new treatments. She spoke with Newsweek about the drug-resistance problem and how we might dig our way out of it.

In terms of the scope of the drug-resistance problem, do you believe we are approaching a crisis? The crisis has already arrived. We are in an era now when doctors like me have no effective antibiotics for some of their patients.

Is there anything in the wings that gives you hope a potential solution is on the way? There is a lot of research going on that could give us good solutions. The pipeline isn't quite as empty as it was 10 years ago. Phages [bacteria-killing viruses], vaccines against infections, new diagnostic methods and monoclonal antibodies [immune-system boosters] are all innovative and promising lines of research.

Some of the technical and scientific hurdles are high, especially with vaccines. But we could target a vaccine at people we know face a specific kind of infection risk, such as people who are getting open-heart surgery, a common operation with a high risk of infection. We'd vaccinate you a week or two before surgery. Even if we only had vaccines for one or two types of infections, it would save thousands of lives.

But is the research moving quickly enough? The research isn't the problem. We are seeing innovative research in the pre-human-trial phase from small biotech companies that are fully ready to pursue human trials. But nobody's lining up to pay for it. Sales wouldn't bring in enough to justify the cost. We're seeing existing antibiotics manufacturers at or near bankruptcy, and small biotech companies are struggling. We can foster innovation, but if there's no market waiting to nurture the results, it will just be a wasteland. …

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