Thursday, June 16, 2016
Antibiotic Incentives - What's Missing?
In a word – training. I’m beginning to feel like a broken record. I’ve been talking to various funding agencies about this need for 12 years now (1, 2, 3). Either no one is home, or they think they have already addressed the problem, or they don’t believe there is a problem to address.
Between mergers, acquisitions and frank abandonment of antibiotic research and development, there are precious few companies involved in the area anymore. While there has been an increase in funding for antibiotic discovery research in academia over the last decade, most academic researchers are poorly prepared to conduct this sort of research. At the same time, the committees that review grant proposals in the area are frequently made up, mostly, of the same academic researchers who are often unprepared to either judge or carry out the proposed research. Happily, at least during the years I was involved in reviewing proposals for the National Institutes of Health in the US, there were a few researchers from industry present who could help the committee understand the advantages and, more often, failings, of the proposals before us. But we are a shrinking commodity. Many of us are older and retired. Many have moved on to areas of research outside of antibiotics (you have to make a living after all).
Antibiotic discovery and development is a highly specialized endeavour. It requires an understanding of a huge variety of topics and skills including clinical microbiology, epidemiology, biophysics, biochemistry, structural biology, pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, animal testing, toxicology, chemical manufacturing, medical need, clinical infectious diseases and much more. While one does not have to have expertise in all these areas, you do have to have enough of an understanding to converse with the experts and to make judgements about how and whether to take compounds forward to the next step or not. This sort of breadth of knowledge and experience is found everyday within companies pursuing antibiotic discovery and development. It is only rarely found in academia.
Where will our next generation of antibiotic hunters come from? I believe that they cannot come solely from academia as things stand today. What I have been proposing for all these years is a training program of 3-12 months to take place within industry where all these skill sets can be found. For some reason (conflict of interest?), academia and therefore funding agencies seem unwilling to go forward with this sort of effort. Recently, a highly placed official from the NIH quipped that I should just fund these training programs out of my own pocket! I just don't understand the reluctance here.
Who should be trained? First – established researchers who are now or want to in the future conduct antibiotic discovery and development research. Next we should concentrate on post-doctoral training to give our new researchers the skills they need. Finally, once we have trained mentors in place, we should focus on PhD candidates who want to make a career out of antibiotic research.
Who should fund this research? We should! Government should align with various companies still active in antibiotic research who have the appropriate skill sets to provide this training for academics. Private organizations such as Wellcome Trust and perhaps the Pew Charitable Trust could also take this on.
If we fail to act on this key area of need, we can offer all the incentives we want, but there will be no one left to take up the task of actually delivering the antibiotics we need.