Margaret Riley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and pioneer in fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria, announced this week that she is partnering with a Chinese scientist to develop a new drug platform, pheromonicins. The Chinese government is committing $400 million per year to support the newly created Pheromonicin Institute of Beijing. Riley plans to open a sister institute in the Amherst area.
"At this point, I will be doing the work in Beijing," Riley says. "Later, as we sort out details and opportunities for U.S. funding support, we may be able to bring some of the work to the Pioneer Valley."
After trying unsuccessfully for years to find funding to study and develop a more effective method of treating catheter-related urinary tract infections (UTI) that are resistant to current antibiotics, she explains, she was contacted by Dr. Xiao-Qing Qiu, the inventor of pheromonicins, who asked if she was interested in collaborating with his government-supported lab.
Riley now plans to collaborate with Xiu to develop his powerful new drugs there instead of in the U.S. "I want to solve the problem and if I have to fly to Beijing to do my animal trials, that's what I'll have to do," she says. The short-term goal is to focus on a new treatment for UTI, but, she adds, "Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of effective therapeutic drugs and strategies to combat drug resistance in quickly evolving diseases such as HIV, TB, malaria, cancer and cystic fibrosis."
"One of the things that people don't realize is how significant drug resistance is in the disease process. It's only in the past 10 or 15 years we have begun to understand the way drug resistance arises at the molecular level. Drug resistance is at the core of many of these diseases and their ability to stay ahead of and stymie our efforts at eradicating them is extremely serious," the biologist notes.
Antibiotics are the primary weapons against harmful bacteria like those that cause strep throat, but they have become less effective in recent years because the bacteria can evolve into "superbugs," new strains resistant to most antibiotics. A recent pledge announced by President Obama to give $1.2 billion across a half-dozen agencies to classify and monitor antibiotic-resistant bacteria, discover new antibiotics and improve the prescribing methods highlights the importance of such efforts.
"I think the president's initiative is phenomenal and long overdue," Riley says. The biggest chunk of money allotted to the effort as part of the 2016 budget proposal, nearly $1 billion, will go to the Department of Health and Human Services, which will effectively double the agency's funding over 2015 levels, she notes.
Many observers in recent years thought that new antibiotics would be discovered in time so doctors wouldn't need to worry about resistance, Riley acknowledges. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that antibiotic-resistant bacteria now cause 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths a year in the U.S. Riley feels that's a conservative estimate and the real number of deaths is likely double or triple that.
The economic price is high, as well, she adds, as much as $20 billion a year in health care costs and $35 billion in lost worker productivity.
Further, the antibiotics doctors employ now use a "shotgun approach," she explains, that targets healthy as well as harmful bacteria. With this method, when people take antibiotics, the drugs also kill beneficial bacteria in our bodies that we need for good health. This can do more harm than good, especially for children who take antibiotics while young and may carry long-term damage to their microbiome.
Riley and others have evidence that a much more targeted approach is possible and believe it shows great promise for the future, in part because they have seen in experiments that bacteria have the ability to produce their own "chemical weapons," proteins called bacteriocins that attack enemy bacteria without harming beneficial ones.
"We're at the tip of the iceberg now in understanding how many antibiotic-resistant genes there are, what they are and what they do," she says. "If bacteria know how to make compounds that quite precisely target their enemies, we can learn from that and do a better job of developing the next generation of antibiotics that work without threatening everything in their path."
Overall, Riley says she and other researchers are delighted to see that the president's budget proposal includes what they consider a comprehensive and science-based approach to antibiotic resistance, even if it's a bit overdue. "It's already translated into new opportunities," she says. "There's been new attention on novel approaches to antibiotics."
University of Massachusetts Amherst