Back in the 1980s, a false sense of security that infectious diseases were under control helped spur the drug industry to shift its resources away from creating new antibiotics. Since the discovery of penicillin, hailed in the ’40s as the miracle drug, scientists had developed new generations of antibiotics that cured a wide range of diseases.
“There was a sense that the market and the clinical needs were already pretty well satisfied with existing agents,” remembers Keith Bostian, who was a researcher at Merck Research Laboratory in the ’80s. “The hurdle to qualify for a new drug candidate that could be competitive and take market share was getting higher and higher.” As a result, many drug companies turned their basic research efforts to antiviral and antifungal medicines, few of which were on the market.
What a difference a decade makes. Today Keith Bostian is the founding scientist and chief operating officer of Microcide Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a California company created in 1992 to develop novel antibiotics for serious infectious diseases. Bostian typifies the rejuvenated attitude of the pharmaceutical industry, which sees opportunities that didn’t exist in the ’80s to make and market new antibiotics as well as new types of bacterial killers. Across the country, researchers are competing furiously to uncover the private lives of bacteria, probing their genes to learn which are necessary for survival and which are involved in infecting people, and what mechanisms the microbes use to survive antibiotics. And pharmaceutical and biotech companies are nearly stampeding to find significant bacterial targets, create novel methods of attacking them, and be first to bring the new drugs to market.