pharmaceuticals

A ray of hope amid antibiotic gloom

As antibiotic resistance continues to threaten the treatment of various infections, researchers are looking for new ways to supplement and in some cases replace failing antimicrobial drugs.

When it comes to tackling infections, we’ve had it pretty good for the past 90 years. The development of antibiotics has turned many previously deadly infections into mere inconveniences, but it couldn’t last forever. Slowly, bacteria have fought back, developing resistance to many of the most effective drugs. In the United States alone, around 2 million people are infected with resistant strains of bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 of these patients die.

“We’re at the end of the first antibiotic era,” says Lloyd Czaplewski, founder of Chemical Biology Ventures, an R&D consultancy based in Oxfordshire. “There might not be any new classes of drugs to discover.”

New ideas are needed. And while most researchers and pharmaceutical companies have all but given up on developing new antibiotics, work is racing ahead on alternative therapies, with an aim to extend the life of existing drugs, or replace them altogether. Read more in The Pharmaceutical Journal.

Data sharing: Access all areas

Advocates say that open science will be good for innovation. One neuroscience institute plans to put that to the test.

In the cut-throat world of early-stage clinical development, where aggressive defence of data and intellectual property is thought to be key to amassing profits, one academic institute is opting out.

Over the next five years, McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (the Neuro) in Canada will conduct a radical experiment in open science. It will make all results, data and publications from its research free to access, will require collaborators to do the same, and, perhaps most surprisingly, will not pursue patents on any of its discoveries. Read more in Nature.

Drug development: The treasure chest

Pharmaceutical research into the chemicals found in cannabis has so far supplied only one licensed medicine. But scientists think there could be hundreds more.

The annual meeting of the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) is a highly unusual scientific conference. It has been closed to all media since its inception 25 years ago, lending an air of mystery to the gathering of researchers who study the unique chemicals found in cannabis.

In a relaxation of the organization’s long-standing policy, ICRS permitted Nature reporters to attend this year’s conference, which was hosted by Acadia University in the tiny Canadian town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. The tight-knit group of researchers are bound together by onerous government restrictions on their subject, and by their sufferance of lingering suspicions from other scientists that they are a bunch of hippies trying to get an illicit drug legalized.

“The status of cannabis as an illegal substance makes it difficult for some people to take it seriously,” concedes Mark Ware, a pain specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who focuses on the analgesic properties of cannabis. Read more in Nature.

Tackling prescription drug abuse

There are signs that strategies to address prescription drug abuse are starting to work but will an increase in illegal drug use be the payoff?

Prescription medicines can be a powerful life saving tool, but they carry with them a danger of abuse. The euphoric effects of prescription painkillers, as well as stimulants and drugs designed to treat anxiety and trouble sleeping, can encourage some people to use them recreationally, with potentially fatal results. Others who start using these drugs therapeutically can go on to become addicted.

The problem is a huge one. In the United States, drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental deaths, eclipsing even car accidents. And the UK joins the United States in the grim statistic that overdose deaths from prescription opioids outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined. A variety of approaches are being used to tackle the problem, including educating prescribers, monitoring prescriptions, introducing drug formulations that are tough to abuse and, ultimately, treating addicted individuals. Read more in The Pharmaceutical Journal.

Questions raised about whether compulsory licenses get best prices

The use of so-called ‘compulsory licenses’ by developing countries to obtain cheaper drugs for HIV and AIDS by circumventing patents has not been the best strategy for achieving the lowest prices over the past decade, a new study claims. Instead, the best prices were often obtained by countries that procured their drugs through voluntary negotiations, often facilitated by third parties such as UNICEF or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Read more in Nature Medicine.

Pharmaceuticals in the environment: a growing problem

Drugs taken by humans and animals find their way into rivers, lakes and even drinking water, and can have devastating effects on the environment.

When Rebecca Klaper searched for signs of pharmaceuticals in Lake Michigan, she got a surprise. The most common drug she found was one she hadn’t even considered looking for — metformin, a diabetes drug.

“It wasn’t even on our radar,” says Klaper, a freshwater scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the United States. “We only found it because the Environmental Protection Agency just happened to add it to the detection assay we used.”

Perhaps even more surprising was how far the drug had spread from the point it entered the lake via treated sewage. “Lake Michigan is huge, so we expected a big dilution effect, but we were still finding drugs, including metformin, three miles from the sewage treatment plants,” she says. Read more in The Pharmaceutical Journal.