Innovation key to fighting ‘super bugs’

Imagine you are recovering from a routine surgery only to find yourself fighting for your life a few days later because of a bacterial infection that was acquired as a result of the procedure. To make matters worse, traditional medicines are proving ineffective at battling the infection. 

This frightening scenario is an emerging reality as these “super bugs” — named so for their resistance to known antibiotics — are becoming more pervasive throughout the country and the world. 

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that MRSA, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is responsible for more than 17,000 deaths in the United States each year — more than AIDS — and that all 50 states have seen rates of antibiotic-resistant E. coli infections double in less than 10 years. A lesser-known bug, Acinetobacter, has infected more than 700 of our troops serving in Iraq since 2003, and the numbers continue to rise. 

This disturbing trend is made all the more alarming by the devastating health consequences felt by patients. Jamel Sawyer, a former college football player from Norwalk, Conn., knows the crippling impact all too well after contracting an antibiotic-resistant Staph infection. After multiple rounds of antibiotic treatment, Jamel was left paralyzed from the waist down. Failing to fight back means bacteria like the kind that changed Jamel’s life will continue to endanger patients across the country.

The history of antibiotics has repeated itself: Drugs are discovered but natural bacterial evolution increasingly renders them ineffective in treating infections. Overuse of antibiotics in humans or animals could be contributing to the ability of germs to mutate with increasing strength against our available medicines.

Encouraging prescribers to use antibiotics only when patients really need them is important to extend the effectiveness of the antibiotics we have now, but this is not enough. Staying ahead in the arms race against super bugs is a constant challenge, especially when you consider that it takes researchers on average more than 10 years to develop just one new drug.

Research and development of new antibiotics present unique scientific and economic obstacles. The financial disincentives to create new antibiotics are significant, because they are only taken for a period of days or weeks, unlike cholesterol-reducing statins or other medicines used to treat lifelong conditions. New antibiotics are not “blockbuster” drugs, lacking the long-term revenue potential of more routinely administered products. Consequently, the number of new drugs in our antibiotic pipeline has run dry, and Food and Drug Administration approval of new antibiotics has decreased by 70 percent since the mid-1980s. 

To address this growing public health threat, we recently introduced the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act, bipartisan legislation that seeks to spur development of new antibiotics. Without putting federal dollars at stake, the bill provides the necessary economic incentives so innovators and pharmaceutical companies are willing to make the necessary investments. These incentives include longer exclusive marketing rights and a quicker, streamlined FDA regulatory review process. Expanding these drugs’ exclusive access to the market would compensate for lower return from sales, and prompt, expedited consideration by the FDA would benefit patients as well as drugmakers, many of them small business innovators across the country.

Other steps should be taken to fight the spread of super bugs — including more prudent use of antibiotics and more effective infection prevention measures in our hospitals and healthcare centers — but passage of the GAIN Act is a necessary step that can be taken now. The proposal has broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, which in itself is an unusual and encouraging fact. 

The bill has also been endorsed by 49 organizations across the country, including St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. In a letter expressing support for the GAIN Act, Dr. William Evans, the director and CEO of St. Jude, wrote: “We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation in which we have been able to save a child’s life after a cancer diagnosis, only to lose them to an untreatable multi-drug resistant infection.”

We are in a real-life race against the super bugs, and we are losing. We must harness nature and American ingenuity to win.

Blumenthal and Corker are members of the Senate Select Committee on Aging. Blumenthal also serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.