(NaturalNews) Locked in a battle with an extremely drug-resistant superbug last year, doctors at the National Institutes of Health's Clinical Center played one last card. They turned to colistin, as it's named, an antibiotic that is not a new creation. In fact, it was actually discovered growing in a beaker of fermenting bacteria in Japan in 1949, just a few years after the end of World War II.
What made doctors so desperate that they had to turn to an old drug with dangerous side-effects? (colistin is known to cause kidney damage, the Washington Post reported). A significant lack of new antibiotics from drug manufacturers.
There are so few new antibiotics in the Big Pharma pipeline, despite a global epidemic of superbugs acquired in hospitals that have quickly grown resistant to existing antibiotics, that doctors have had to turn to older, though more dangerous, standbys.
"It's a case of evolution outrunning capitalism," the Post said.
Development not keeping up with threat
Allen Coukell, director of medical programs at the Pew Health Group, told the paper that between 1945 and 1968, drug makers developed and marketed 13 new categories of antibiotics. But since then, just two new categories of the drugs have been developed.
In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved one new antibiotic, but it is useful in fighting just one of the many bacteria, Clostridium difficile, a cause of deadly hospital-borne infections.
"What kept us out of trouble for the last 60 years is that every time drug resistance caught up to us, the pharmaceutical companies would go back to the drawing board and develop the next generation of drugs to keep us ahead of the game," Brad Spellberg, an infectious diseases physician in Los Angeles and head of a microbial resistance task force for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, told the paper.
"That's the part of the equation that's changed," he continued. "Drug companies are no longer trying to get one step ahead."
Industry experts say there are three reasons why drug makers have withdrawn from developing new antibiotics, despite 20 years' worth of alarm-sounding by public health leaders. One, there is little money in antibiotics; two, inventing new ones is very difficult technically; and three, in light of drug safety concerns, the FDA has not made it easy for pharmaceutical companies to get new antibiotics approved.
This so-called "perfect storm" of events, therefore, has resulted in just four of the world's 12 largest drug companies researching new antibiotics, according to David Shlaes, a long-time drug developer and consultant, the Post said.
And it doesn't look like the situation is going to get any better anytime soon.
Last year, for instance, the world's biggest Big Pharma company - Pfizer - shuttered its Connecticut antibiotics research facility, letting go of 1,200 employees. Company officials said they were moving it to Shanghai, China. But Shlaes says the pharmaceutical giant is having trouble opening its new facility there, adding that the company has all but abandoned antibiotics development anyway.
Analysts noted that a new antibiotic can bring in a billion dollars over its lifetime, but a new heart drug, by comparison, can earn as much as $10 billion.
Other drugs taken over long-term (antibiotics are short-term use, most often) are also big earners. These include depression and erectile dysfunction medications.
Too little, too late?
For once, lawmakers seem attentive. Earlier this year, Congress inserted a provision into an FDA authorization measure granting an additional five years of market exclusivity to any company that invented a new antibiotic. That's important, say analysts, because it means no competition from other drug makers for an extended period.
But it's not enough, say experts.
"It's a great first step," Spellberg said, but it's "not strong enough to turn things around."
10 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1.7 million annual hospital-borne infections had caused 99,000 deaths.
In the midst of an epidemic of resistant, hospital-borne superbugs, the agency is currently updating its figures.
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