Blog | Monday, July 8, 2013

Antibiotic discovery, or how focusing on supply while ignoring demand is doomed to fail


An article in the New York Times (above the fold on page one) brings the problem of antimicrobial resistance and antibacterial discovery to the public's attention. It's a very important issue and many of the points raised in the article are spot on. Just some things for you to think about when you read the article:

Health and Human Services is giving between $40 and $200 million to GlaxoSmithKline over the next five years for drug discovery. This amount approximates what NIH spends on all antimicrobial resistance research for ESCKAPE pathogens ($50 million annually). It's surprising that this amount couldn't be targeted to NIH or CDC funding instead (or ever).

Frustratingly, there was not one mention of antibacterial stewardship or infection prevention. Back when I was studying economics under this guy at University of Michigan, I learned about price determination. In principle, the price for a good will tend to settle where demand equals supply.

I think of antimicrobial resistance the same way. Demand is the need for broad-spectrum antibiotics based on resistance levels in the community and supply is the availability of effective antibiotics to treat resistant infections. If we focus on the supply side by funding pharmaceutical companies, we may end up with more effective antibiotics, but the set point equilibrium with high levels of resistance will remain if we continue to ignore the demand side.

To fix the demand side we need equal investment in stewardship and infection prevention research and implementation. Give $200 million to prevention research and we might actually find ways to scientifically achieve hand hygiene compliance over 50% without just yelling at health care workers! Imagine that.

What did grandma tell me when I was little? "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I think she was spot on and it's is probably why I became a hospital epidemiologist. Thanks, grandma.

Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands). This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.