No one wants to fund the development of new antibiotics

“Only when cancer can no longer be treated, will the development of new antibiotics speed up. It sounds cynical, but that’s the way it is,” says Steigedal, who works at CEMIR, the Centre for Molecular Inflammation Research, which is a Norwegian Center of Excellence at NTNU. Here, the interactions between bacteria and viruses and the immune system are under scrutiny. Together with researchers from the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and Canada, Steigedal is working on new antibiotic mixtures, and also a new method to find antibiotics.

Must be cheap for pharmaceuticals to take over
“Today, scientists are testing new antibiotics that have been collected in a large library, which is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are hundreds of thousands of chemical compounds in the library, and they are tested against various bacteria. This is expensive and demanding. The new method needs to be relatively cheap for pharmaceutical companies to take over. If universities can bring them the knowledge, antibiotic development could become commercially viable,” says Steigedal.

Professor Trude Helen Flo is CEMIR’s co-director. She says that the goal is first and foremost to weaken bacteria rather than kill them completely.

“Antibiotics do not need to kill the bacteria entirely. If we can strengthen a person’s immune system, weakening the bacteria may be enough for the immune system to clean up the rest. In the new project we’re going to try new combinations of antibiotics. It may be that an antibiotic that has lost its effect will work if we combine it with others. We are going to investigate what is vital for the bacteria to survive, and then go on the attack against it. Today we still lack an understanding of this fundamental interaction between bacteria and humans,” says Flo.

Finds the government’s strategy limited
Minister of Health and Care Services Bent Høie (Conservative Party) along with Minister of Agriculture and Food Minister Sylvi Listhaug (Progress Party) are preparing a strategy this spring to overcome antibiotic resistance. “We need to work to make Norway as strong as possible in this area,” Listhaug told the Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv in January.

Steigedal believes that Høie and Listhaug’s statements suggest that their strategy will be too narrowly focused. “It appears that the government plans to monitor more, slaughter pigs infected with multidrug-resistant bacteria and cut back on antibiotics use in Norway by encouraging doctors to cut back on prescribing the drugs. This approach will work in Norway, and it’s very good. But the biggest problem is not in Norway. This is a global challenge and a global responsibility. We are already on top of the issue in Norway, but it doesn’t help the world if we get even better. Most people travel around the world a lot, and carry bacteria across the border with them,” said Steigedal. He is encouraging Høie and Listhaug to initiate a collaborative Scandinavian effort.

Should push through legislation
“Together we can take a global responsibility and push through legislation and sanctions that will also help in Norway. A good example is the United Kingdom, which introduced stricter rules and has reduced multiresistant staphylococcus bacterium cases in their hospitals to a third of what they had five years ago,” Steigedal says.

West Africa has been hit hard by Ebola, and their already vulnerable health systems have collapsed. Now other diseases may also become more problematic, because people don’t dare to visit the hospital for fear of being infected by Ebola. Liberia, one of the hardest-hit by Ebola, has recently had major measles outbreaks, reports NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

“After Ebola there will probably be a resurgence of several diseases, such as tuberculosis,” says Steigedal.

NTNU notes that because of the financial crisis, there has been no new European research money to find new antibiotics and understand the interaction between bacteria and humans. The European research program Horizon 2020 previously funded this research.

Flo finds the current situation scary. Steigedal hopes Norwegian politicians take global reality into account as they develop a new strategy.