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Crowdsourcing the Discovery of New Antibiotics 73

Posted by samzenpus
from the take-a-red-pill dept.
First time accepted submitter Josiah Zayner writes "Katie Drummond at The Verge reports that 'the Infectious Diseases Society of America warned that the pipeline of new antibiotics was "on life support," with only seven drugs in advanced stages of development to treat multidrug-resistant gram-negative superbugs. That's in part because, unlike drugs prescribed to treat chronic conditions, antibiotics are only taken for a few days or weeks at a time — meaning they're less profitable for pharmaceutical companies.' Dr. Josiah Zayner, a synthetic biology fellow at NASA, and Dr. Mark Opal, a neurobiologist and drug development specialist have started an Indiegogo campaign: The ILIAD Project. ILIAD stands for the International Laboratory for Identification of Antibacterial Drugs. Contributors to the project will receive Science kits with all the materials needed for testing environmental samples, such as plants, insects, and bacteria, for antibiotic properties. The information will then be documented in Open manner on Wiki-style website to create the first Massively Multi-Scientist Open Experiment."
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Crowdsourcing the Discovery of New Antibiotics

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2013 @07:21PM (#45579407)

    See the failure here: They only make money when people are sick. The economics are not there to make people better. The economics are there to make a profit off as many sick people for as long as possible.

    We really need to work on a new system where the profit is in healthy people not sick people.

  • Obvious questions (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2013 @07:26PM (#45579457)

    1. They're really going to let random people experiment with horrific, drug-resistant pathogens? If not, how else are they going to test stuff?

    2. Who gets the patent, when the crowdsource does 99% of the work and PharmaCorp does the final tests of the end result?

  • by doctor woot (2779597) on Monday December 02, 2013 @07:47PM (#45579651)

    If, for instance, the traditional method of giving the financial burden of medical research to pharmaceutical companies, in exchange for patents which allow them to recoup their losses, is too costly to the public, in terms of both availability of existing treatment (companies have to make their money back somehow) and development of new treatments (since medical researchers have to take care not to infringe on the patents of others, even if it means skipping out on a potential cure for, say, cancer) then possibly, we could try an entirely new approach. Say, asking from the general public a portion of their wages in exchange for an investment into such research. We could even make it compulsory; after all, the benefits of advanced and available medical care benefit the whole of society, as opposed to say, an investment in a company like General Motors, which would do little to secure the welfare of the general population.

    Maybe we ought to form an organization dedicated to ensuring the well being of the public. Could work.

  • by raymorris (2726007) on Monday December 02, 2013 @08:01PM (#45579755)

    TFS says "only seven ... in advanced stages of development". How many new antibiotics do we need in the next five or ten years? If seven are in advanced stages of development, that means there are a couple dozen in earlier stages, to go up for approval twenty years from now. Do we need a dozen brand new antibiotics every year? Should we be skeptical of this article's assumption that seven at a time isn't enough?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2013 @08:04PM (#45579783)

    I've been reading Derek Lowe's blog ( for some time, since finding out about his "Things I Won't Work With" series of posts (hilarious, highly recommended). He's a drug discovery chemist. Several of his recent posts have actually discussed this issue of pharma companies not currently developing many new antibiotics.

    Based on what I've learned by following him, this crowdsourcing effort seems very unlikely to change anything. Identifying potential drug candidates "in vitro" (i.e. in a petri dish) is the easy part. Getting them to function "in vivo" (in a living animal such as a rodent, and eventually humans), and finding ones which not only work in vivo but also are not excessively toxic, that's the hard part. For almost every successful drug, there were hundreds or thousands of other candidates which looked great in vitro but were ineffective in vivo, or too toxic to use. The process of screening drug candidates to find winners is hideously expensive, and completely out of reach of amateurs.

    In other words, this project follows the classic (and useless) "idea-man" pattern: it "solves" the easy part of the problem (generating ideas / drug candidates) without having any plan for the hard stuff. It will therefore ultimately depend on pharma companies anyways. You know, the same ones which aren't terribly interested in doing the hard and expensive work on antibiotic candidates because the economics look bad to them right now.

    IMO, we as a society should instead be pushing issues like: "Why are we so slavishly devoted to the notion that funding for drug discovery must derive from capitalistic market forces"? This seems like the very definition of a problem which should be addressed by spending tax money on antibiotic research. Same goes for many other categories of drug.

    The other part of the conversation should be "why are we so devoted to not cracking down on antibiotic overprescription and unprescribed use of antibiotics in both human and veterinary medicine"? (That being why old antibiotics are losing effectiveness.) Once again, obvious candidates for government action.

    (But this is slashdot, so I predict libertarian resistance to sensible ideas about public policy and spending.)

  • by WillAffleckUW (858324) on Monday December 02, 2013 @08:15PM (#45579857) Homepage Journal

    The main problem is overuse of antibiotics - both in the food supply itself, and in every day usage, is breeding resistance to our current antibiotics. Combined with people going off meds before the antiobiotic regime is completed.

    Discovering "new" antibiotics won't make that problem go away.

    Fix the source of the problem not the symptom.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 02, 2013 @09:17PM (#45580197)

    Depends on the infection, but if you do a simple stress test on antibiotics with varying densities in a petri dish, infections can break through lower densities fairly quickly.
    Considering so many morons never finish their full course of antibiotics, those levels routinely drop below and infections can grow again.
    Then they bitch at the doctor again because it never worked only to get more antibiotics, ONLY TO REPEAT IT.
    It is one of the biggest reasons next to abuse in factory farming for massive increases in infections, besides overly-sterile food that is, that shit is going to destroy a generation soon with autoimmune.

  • by Okian Warrior (537106) on Monday December 02, 2013 @09:49PM (#45580395) Homepage Journal

    Why are you (and TFA) both assuming that the market is wrong and that finding new antibotics is more important than the value placed upon it by companies in a position to do it? You have this intuition that it is important, and some rationale that cannot be tested because it involves some speculation about the future need for new antibiotics.

    The situation has basically been taken out of the "market" model.

    Risk-averse bureaucrats make the safety requirements without any cost burden of implementing the requirements. As a result, the drugs must be "safe at any cost", rather then "do more harm than good".

    The consumers are captive, forced to use the system: no one can choose a "risky, less-well tested, but cheaper" treatment. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, it means that companies don't have to compete for consumers based on the value of their services.

    Nothing about this system even remotely resembles a market.

    To address your point directly, let's assume that one human life is worth $5 million []. That's a reasonable estimate, and it doesn't much matter where you put the estimates, you can still do the analysis. Also assume that it costs $5 billion [] to develop a new antibiotic.

    The trade-off appears to be 1,000 lives lost. If no company develops a new antibiotic and 2,000 lives are lost, then the regulations have hurt society more than they have helped. The problem is that the cost of 2,000 human lives is not borne by the regulatory agency or the drug companies. They can safely claim "it isn't our fault" if anything bad happens.

    As you say, the need for future antibiotics can't be tested - but the break-even point is small and we have abundant historical evidence from before the discovery of antibiotics about the effect on our population health.

    "Speculation" and untested rationale aren't the appropriate words to use here. "Impending disaster" is much closer than you would have us believe.

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