Multi-resistant "super-bacteria" pose the threat of a global resurgence of deadly infections. Yet the search for innovative therapeutic solutions in this field is struggling to take off, due to a lack of satisfactory economic profitability.
Cn recent decades, due to overuse of antibiotics in both humans and farm animals, bacteria have found increasingly formidable parries, worthy of elite soldiers: jamming, camouflaging, armouring, dodging...sometimes rendering conventional antibiotics impotent. « It's a race against time. We're constantly trying to catch up with the evolution of the bacteria« Marc Lemonnier, CEO of Antabio, a small biotech company in Toulouse working in this field, told AFP.
A post-antibiotic era
If nothing moves, the world is heading into a "post-antibiotic era, in which common infections may start killing again," the World Health Organization (WHO) has been reminding us. Antimicrobial resistance already kills 50,000 patients every year in the United States and Europe, and could cause 10 million deaths per year worldwide by 2050, more than cancer, experts commissioned by the British government have predicted.
Until now, antibiotics have long been regarded as everyday consumer goods, but their low price has been offset by high distribution volumes. But health authorities are now restricting their use to prevent the emergence of new resistance.
As a result, many major pharmaceutical companies have gradually abandoned this field of research in favour of more lucrative fields such as diabetes or cancer. As a result, no new classes of antibiotics have come onto the market for 30 years.
Call for European biotechs
" The antibiotic development model is not adapted to small patient populations.« Laurent Fraisse, head of infectious disease research and development at Sanofi, who has several early research projects in this area, told AFP.
European regulations should also be simplified for innovative antibiotics and their alternatives, because " on does not do a clinical study in the same way with 5,000 patients as with 50,000« ...according to Mr. Fraisse. « We burn a lot of cash to do extremely expensive research and we're far from the market, which makes the equation very complicated.« The new president, Marc Lemonnier from Antabio, is taking over.
To decouple the laboratories' revenues from the low volumes of antibiotic sales, the experts commissioned by London suggested the creation of a fund that would pay them a lump sum as soon as their innovative antibiotic resistance treatments came onto the market.
Governments have also begun to respond. The United States introduced a fast-track approval process for new antibiotics in 2012, and extended market exclusivity for five years to better capitalize on innovation by delaying the arrival of generics. Barack Obama's administration launched a $1.2 billion national plan against antibiotic resistance this year, about half of which will be devoted to public-private research.
This American voluntarism has had a "snowball effect" on private investment, notes Florence Séjourné, CEO of Da Volterra, another French biotech company working on antibiotic resistance.
Some pharmaceutical giants have recently relaunched themselves in this field, such as the American company Merck, which bought out its compatriot Cubist Pharmaceuticals, a specialist in super-bacteria, for $9.5 billion at the end of 2014.
Some forty European biotechs, grouped together in a new alliance, BEAM, are dreaming of a European fund for innovative SMEs in antibiotic resistance, estimating that they need "5 to 10 million euros" in aid per project. « The European Union also needs to align itself with the United States. We need to improve the regulatory incentives for antibiotic resistance," says Séjourné, BEAM's spokesperson in France. « No new specific fund (for SMEs) is currently envisaged.« according to a European Commission spokesperson. He recalled that the EU has already invested " nearly one billion euros "It has been involved in transnational projects on bacterial resistance since 1999 and will remain one of its priority research areas in the coming years.