The U.S. government is deepening its effort to entice drug companies back into antibiotic research with a new public-private partnership. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) announced yesterday that it will invest up to $170 million to help pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca move new antibiotic drug candidates toward the market.
AstraZeneca has long been an exception to the trend of waning corporate interest in antibiotic research. Discouraged by the scientific challenges of finding novel antibiotic compounds—and by the difficulty of turning a profit in a field dominated by low-cost generics—many companies have fled the field since the early 2000s. AstraZeneca’s announcement this February that it would spin out its early-stage research into a separate company was interpreted by industry analysts as a signal that it, too, was stepping out of the field.
But under the new agreement, AstraZeneca will receive an initial $50 million to focus first on a combination drug it has been developing for hard-to-treat gram-negative infections. BARDA then plans to invest up to $120 million more over the next 5 years, as it advises the company on other drug candidates to pursue.
As public health experts have sounded the alarm over the threat of increasingly drug-resistant bacteria, BARDA has become a key federal funding mechanism for clinical-stage antibiotic projects, through its Broad Spectrum Antimicrobials (BSA) program, launched in 2010. But until recently, that assistance came in the form of $50 million to $85 million grants to help smaller companies stay afloat through expensive late-stage clinical trials for single drug candidates.
Broad funding for a company’s entire drug pipeline is a relatively newer part of BARDA’s strategy. In 2013, the agency made a $200 million agreement with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to fund an entire portfolio of projects, some still in preclinical stages.
“It’s all about spreading risk over a number of different molecules versus focusing on one and then if it crashes and burns your contract has crashed and burned and you have to start over,” BSA head Joseph Larsen told ScienceInsider at a briefing to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in Washington, D.C., this past March. “So by definition, that tends to be companies that are larger.” Larsen added that, since the GSK agreement, he has been approached by other firms considering getting back into antibiotics, but struggling to make a business case for the research.
Whether other companies can be enticed back into antibiotic research through such partnerships may depend in part on BARDA’s budget next year. An antibiotic resistance initiative announced as part of President Obama’s 2016 budget request would bump funding for the BSA initiative from $79 million to $192 million. Congress is not expected to finalize the 2016 budget until later this year or early next.