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Out With the Big, In with the Little

Small biotechs are picking up antibiotic research where Big Pharma left off. Will their efforts be enough to beat resistance?

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Few new classes of antibiotics have been approved in the past 30 years, and Big Pharma has not been responsible for all of them. Daptomycin, for example, is marketed by Cubist Pharmaceuticals, a small biotech firm in Lexington, Mass. Scientists at Eli Lilly discovered daptomycin but abandoned it during clinical trials because it was too toxic. So Cubist licensed it in 1997 and found that reducing the dosage to once a day renders the drug nontoxic but still effective. It is now being marketed as Cubicin.

This big-small punch may seem a new strategy for getting antibiotics to a hungry market, but some consider the chances slim. Since the 1940s, most big pharmaceutical companies have boasted strong antibiotic drug-discovery programs. But in the past 10 years, two-thirds of these programs have disappeared. Increasing costs of clinical trials, more complex regulations and the drive for higher profits (antibiotics, taken for just a short period to cure disease, generate less profit than drugs taken for decades of “lifestyle” ailments) have sunk them.

Small biotech companies, firms with low overhead and an appetite for scientific risk, are filling some of the void. Novel drugs are being developed at such companies as Migenix and Inimex, which study antimicrobial and immunomodulatory peptides, and AuricX, which aims to make staph less dangerous.

But some experts doubt small biotechs can carry the charge. The Infectious Diseases Society of America has stated that biotechs can’t pursue large-scale drug discovery without the money and expertise of Big Pharma. And a recent Senate hearing considered incentives to encourage pharmaceutical companies to get back in the game. Still, small players are better than none.

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