Each year, 23,000 people die from drug-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs." A new Boston-based initiative aims to arm doctors faster against these pathogens, with new antibiotics, vaccines and diagnostics.
The initiative is a public-private partnership based at Boston University that includes U.S. government agencies, U.K.-based funding and research groups, and in the Boston area, the Broad Institute and MassBio. It expects up to $250 million in federal government funding and up to $100 million more from British sources.
Kevin Outterson, a Boston University law professor and longtime expert on the issue of antibiotic resistance, is leading the project. He explained the project -- named "Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator "or CARB-X for short — at his office overlooking the Boston skyline.
“CARB-X is designed to refill the pipeline because we lack the antibiotics we need," he said.
Even as more and more bacteria have evolved resistance to existing antibiotics over recent years, the development of new antibiotics has been incredibly slow. Pharmaceutical companies have tended to focus on research into more profitable drugs, like those used to treat cancer.
CARB-X hopes to fill in that gap. The initiative provides money, scientific support and business mentorship to university labs and small companies that are currently doing drug resistance research, with the goal of bringing their technologies to clinical trials.
"We need new classes of drugs and we aren’t getting them from our existing system," Outterson said. "This is designed to change the game so that we are able to have, in five or ten years, new classes" of drugs.
CARB-X will be like the Shark Tank of the drug-resistant bacterial research world. “Our goal is to be as fast and as entrepreneurial and have as little bureaucracy as possible," Outterson said. “We are willing to take risks and to fund things that have scientific merit but are high risk.”
Dr. Joseph Larsen, acting deputy director of the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, is hopeful that CARB-X can help companies generate the data they need to attract venture capital funding.
“If we gave some confidence that an in-vitro and in-vivo model had microbiological efficacy, the program would be significantly de-risked for follow-on private sector investment,” Larsen said in a telephone press conference. He says CARB-X anticipates sponsoring 20 projects at any one time and hopes to see at least two products reach human testing within five years.
The initiative hopes to fund projects in entirely new classes of antibiotics instead of just tweaking older drugs. Outterson also hopes to see "a couple of really interesting vaccines” and new tools to help physicians identify bacterial infections in patients.
CARB-X does not focus on the overuse of antibiotics that contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance, but Outterson acknowledges its importance.
“If we just give doctors new antibiotics without changing their behavior, then all we’ve done is give a finer quality of brandy to our alcoholic patients," he said. "We have to do both — we need new drugs and we also need to change the way we are wasting them through all sorts of inappropriate practices.”