Costs, resistance shrink pool of new antibiotics

Some drug companies have abandoned research into antibiotics, citing high costs and difficulty in tackling superbugs.

Doctors have long warned that the more people take antibiotics, the more likely the drugs are to be less effective. But the fight against infection also faces another potential setback – few new antibiotics are even being developed.

Bacteria are becoming resistant to older antibiotics like penicillin and tetracyclines, but some drug companies have abandoned research into antibiotics.

Between 1983 and 2001, 47 new antibiotics won approval from Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In 2002, no antibiotics were approved; last year, there were two. Of the 506 drugs currently in development, six are new antibiotics.

"Between 8,000 and 12,000 people in Canada will die every year as a result of a hospital infection," said Dr. Dick Zoutman, a microbiologist at Kingston General Hospital. "Not all of them are due to antibiotic resistance but many of them are."

Pharmaceutical companies say there's more profit in developing drugs for chronic conditions such as high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction. For bacterial infections, most patients get better in a week.

New antibiotic costs $1 billion to develop

Wyeth Pharmaceuticals is one of the few companies researching new antibiotics. The company has a new drug that should hit the market in a couple of years.

It has taken the company 12 years and more than $1 billion to develop the drug and show it is safe.

"I don't think we realized it would take us a dozen years from discovery to marketing for a new antibacterial drug," said Dr. Steven Projan of Wyeth in Pearl River, N.Y. "If we thought that was the case at the beginning, we would never have done it in the first place."

Besides cost, resistance is another disincentive. Some bacteria develop resistance only months after an antibiotic is launched.

To prevent resistance, doctors are encouraged to prescribe antibiotics sparingly, limiting sales growth for drug companies.

Silvana Pace-Donofrio of Howe Island, Ont., was born with cystic fibrosis and suffers from chronic lung infections. She has taken so many antibiotics over the years that her bacteria have grown resistant to several kinds.

"What if you get really sick and there's nothing they can give me?" she said. "You get kind of scared. You don't know how long you have."

While some doctors believe governments should step in and fund antibiotic research if the pharmaceutical industry won't, some of the companies themselves say they should be given incentives to develop antibiotics, like extended patents on their products.